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Drawing the Line

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California voters passed Proposition 187 in November, enacting into law a controversial bill that denies illegal immigrants basic social services, including education. Now, educators and policymakers in that state are scrambling to determine whether and how to enforce the new law, a direct challenge to Plyler v. Doe, a 1982 Supreme Court ruling that asserts that public schools must provide all students an education, regardless of their immigration status.

The passage of Proposition 187 drives home the point that states like California have long been trying to convey: They're tired of footing the bill for education and social services to immigrants. And they're out of money.

Nothing affects today's schools more than the profound demographic changes in the nation's population. Projections indicate that by 2026, the proportion of minority students in our nation's schools will be the inverse of 1990's figures, when white students made up 70 percent of the K-12 public school enrollment. While immigrants have historically relied on their communities and religious institutions for education and socialization, this responsibility has fallen increasingly to public schools.

These immigrants and their children will eventually assimilate themselves into American society--just as immigrants to the United States have adjusted for hundreds of years. But assimilation, whether in large cities or rural areas, doesn't just happen. Newcomers require education and basic social services to become contributing members of our society.

The federal government, through immigration policy, controls our borders and oversees the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Although immigration falls under federal domain, local and state governments, especially those with high proportions of immigrants, pick up the tab to educate this growing population. In response, some states are suing the federal government, demanding that it reimburse at least part of the estimated $3 billion they spend to educate immigrants.

But larger border states are not the only ones faced with a surge of immigrants. More and more immigrants are also making their way to the heartland. Small rural towns throughout the country are grappling with an influx of Hispanic and Southeastern Asian immigrants who have followed jobs to these traditionally homogeneous settings.

Whether in rural or urban settings, immigrant students bring with them a host of needs. They usually have limited English proficiency, and they tend to look to the public schools, often the one public institution they have contact with, to provide them social services as well as an education.

Many argue whether immigrant education should be paid for by the federal government or by states and local governments. Others point out that our society benefits from the increasing diversity in schools, saying that benefit is too often left out of the immigration debate. Still others contend that immigrants, until they are naturalized, have no right to any public services paid for by the U.S. taxpayer. Each of these differing points of view converges at the issue of immigrant education.

Demographics have clearly changed the face of education. The United States has traditionally welcomed the arrival of immigrants, recognizing the long-term benefits they provide for our society and economy. But our schools are filled with immigrants from all over the world. The question, then, is whose responsibility is it to serve these foreign-born students? Does this obligation extend to illegal immigrants? Who should be expected to pay for their education and other social services?

Money talks--in all languages. But the issue goes beyond economics. The following commentaries convey points of view from those who favor--and those who don't--providing education and other services to immigrant students and their families.

This special Commentary report, the fourth in a series examining crucial issues in education, is being underwritten by a grant from the Philip Morris Companies Inc.

Read the essays by Harold L. Hodgkinson, Pete Wilson, Monica D. Cruz, Octavio J. Visiedo, and Annette L. Lemons.

Go directly to the first article in this report, "A True Nation of the World," Harold L. Hodgkinson.

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