Published Online: April 2, 1997

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Bilingual & Immigrant Education

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With certain changes in federal welfare and immigration laws due to kick in this week, rumors have swirled through San Francisco's immigrant community that illegal-immigrant children would no longer be welcome in public schools.

In an attempt to set the record straight, San Francisco school officials and immigrant advocates last week held a news conference in a Head Start center in the city's immigrant-heavy Mission neighborhood. The 64,000-student system has notified all schools and printed notices for parents in Chinese and Spanish to urge them to keep their children in school, said district spokeswoman Gail M. Kaufman.

During congressional debate on an immigration-reform bill, lawmakers tried to pass a measure to allow states to deny certain undocumented children a free public education. The plan eventually failed. But with newspaper headlines on overhauling welfare and cutting benefits to immigrants, such policy distinctions do not always translate accurately to parents, Ms. Kaufman said.

"There's been a fair amount of concern, or even panic, that somehow the April 1 deadlines mean their kids are not going to be able to go to school," she said.

While immigration has proved a contentious issue in such states as California, a new book documents New Jersey's relative success in integrating its immigrant residents.

New Jersey's immigrant population--the nation's fifth largest--is more diverse, better educated, and less likely to have illegal status when compared with the nation as a whole, says a book released last month by the Urban Institute in Washington.

In New Jersey, the chief reason why immigrants exert a heavier fiscal impact than their native-born counterparts is their use of the public school systems, the authors found. On average, immigrant families are larger and have more school-age children.

Too often, the authors conclude, the needs of immigrant students are dealt with in an ad hoc way. Schools tend to focus on students' language needs, but largely ignore cultural, psychological, and social barriers.

"Unless schools adopt a comprehensive approach to addressing the multiple barriers immigrant students must overcome, the schools' ability to integrate newcomers to the United States is reduced," the authors conclude.

Copies of the 428-page book, Keys to Successful Immigration: Implications of the New Jersey Experience, are $26.95 each. Call (800) 462-6420 to order.

--LYNN SCHNAIBERG lschnaib@epe.org

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