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Outlook Unclear for Immigration Bill, Provision on Illegal Students

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Work on a broad immigration-reform bill stalled in the Senate last week, leading to speculation about the prospects for a measure that would allow states to bar illegal-immigrant children from receiving a free public education. The counterpart House bill already includes such a provision.

And the Clinton administration issued a statement last week warning that the president would likely veto the immigration bill if such a provision is included.

"If S 1664 were presented to the president with provisions that would jeopardize any child's right to full participation in public elementary and secondary education, including preschool and school-lunch programs, the secretary of education and the attorney general would recommend that the bill be vetoed," the April 15 statement said. The commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service also expressed opposition to the proposal.

The House voted 257-163 last month to add the provision as an amendment to its immigration bill, HR 2202, which seeks to curb both legal and illegal immigration. (See Education Week, March 27, 1996.)

Observers said last week that a similar proposal could surface in debate on S 1664, which aims to stem illegal immigration and curb legal and illegal immigrants' access to some public benefits.

But Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., pulled the bill from the floor last week after Democrats insisted on offering amendments to protect Social Security and raise the minimum wage--two contentious issues Mr. Dole may not want to focus on as he prepares to challenge President Clinton in the November election.

Debate could resume this week.

'Holding Pattern'

Opponents of the education language--including education groups, law-enforcement organizations, and immigrant-rights advocates--said it was rumored that Mr. Dole had asked proponents not to propose it as an amendment, which would surely provoke fierce floor debate.

Even if senators do not bring up an amendment, a House-Senate conference committee could include the House language in the final bill.

The House bill would allow states to deny illegal immigrants a public education or to treat undocumented children as "nonresidents" who could be charged tuition to attend public schools.

If such a provision were enacted, the U.S. Supreme Court would likely have the final say. In its 1982 decision in Plyler v. Doe, the court ruled 5-4 that undocumented children had the same right as others to free public schooling.

"For now, we're in a holding pattern to see how Congress is going to proceed," said Isabelle Garcia, a senior professional associate in government relations for the National Education Association. "Anything should be expected at this point."

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