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'We Need Immigration Reform in Washington'

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The author is the Governor of California. He supported Proposition 187 in his reelection campaign in November.

For Californians, Election '94 presented an unprecedented opportunity to make fundamental change. And the change we now seek must include fundamental change in California's schools.

We need to make our schools safe havens for learning. We cannot expect to experience the tremendous future that awaits our California unless we can teach our children the skills they'll need to compete in the workplace of the 21st century. I've launched significant reforms in California schools, including the nation's most sweeping public-school-choice initiative; the charter-school program, which gives parents greater control over their children's education and makes improvements in the traditional education process; and a zero-tolerance policy to free our schools from guns, drugs, and violence.

Education reform will remain a top priority in my administration. However, for education reform to work in California, we also need immigration reform in Washington. Despite already overcrowded classrooms and tight budgets, more than 300,000 illegal immigrants are enrolled in California's public schools. That's enough people to fill more than 500 average-sized elementary schools.

California is forced to provide educational services to illegal immigrants as a result of a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Plyler v. Doe. Though the Court was divided by a 5-to-4 vote with respect to the final result, all of the majority and dissenting opinions agreed on one basic point: The Court 'is acting to make up for Congress's lack of 'effective leadership' in dealing with the serious national problems caused by the influx of uncountable millions of illegal aliens across our border. Thus, the Court's decision represented a wake-up call to Congress to legislate in this area. However, Congress has yet to listen.

The Plyler mandate has become a massive, multi-billion-dollar burden for California's schools. In fiscal year 1988-89, California spent $790 million to provide K-12 education to nearly 174,000 illegal immigrants. In FY 1994-95, California taxpayers will spend $1.5 billion to educate 308,000 illegal immigrant children. In terms of both caseload and cost, these figures represent a twofold increase in just seven years.

At a time when California needs to build one classroom every day just to keep pace with enrollment growth in its public schools, this federal mandate imposes an unfair burden on the ability of educators to teach the children who legally reside in our state. For example, with the $1.5 billion for educating illegal immigrants in our public schools, California could provide nearly $200,000 for each public school, or $1.5 million for each school district to improve the quality of education for those children and families who are here legally.

The solution to this most disturbing and unfair problem is simple: full federal responsibility for illegal immigration.

Immigration policy is strictly a federal responsibility. The Constitution is clear on that. Yet, for years the federal government has failed to control our borders and hold itself accountable for those who enter our country illegally.

Added to this failure is the most burdensome of ironies: Federal mandates require state and local governments to provide services to those who violate federal law by entering the country illegally. As one pundit said, 'It's like being forced to offer free room service to anyone who breaks into a hotel room. California's total bill for providing services to illegal immigrants is well over $3 billion each year--nearly 10 percent of our General Fund budget. Of that amount, $2.4 billion goes to pay for federally mandated services for illegal immigrants.

California and six other states have tried just about everything to get action in Washington. But apart from election-year cosmetic efforts, both Congress and the Clinton Administration continue to turn a blind eye to the impact of illegal immigration policy on California's schools.

So, fed up, California voters of all races, colors, and creeds overwhelmingly passed Proposition 187--the Save Our State initiative--to send a message to Washington that it was time for the federal government to take responsibility for illegal immigration.

It is imperative that the clear message of Proposition 187 not be clouded by the myths of its detractors. For example, Proposition 187 will not turn teachers into agents for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Teachers do not enroll students, administrators do. And they will continue to do so. Nor will Proposition 187 impose cumbersome eligibility requirements on school admissions administrators. California school administrators already require students to produce proof of age, residency in the district, and vaccination. Adding a requirement to demonstrate citizenship or legal immigrant status should not disrupt the delivery of classroom instruction.

California has a right to set and fund its own priorities and not to shortchange hard-working, law-abiding Californians because of federal mandates to provide services to illegal immigrants. That is why many teachers, school administrators, and a vast majority of parents of school-aged children voted for Proposition 187. As a result, the federal government can no longer sit by and simply pay lip service to relief.

Go directly to "Our Strength Lies in Our Diversity," Monica D. Cruz.

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