Supreme Court Hears Arguments On Illegal Aliens

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Washington--The Supreme Court last week heard oral arguments in a case that may redefine the rights of illegal aliens--and, some analysts believe, could clarify the educational rights of all children.

At issue is a 1975 Texas law that cuts off state reimbursements to school districts for the education of children who are not "legally admitted" to the United States and allows the systems to charge tuition or to exclude such children from school altogether.

Law Found Unconstitutional

The law has been found unconstitutional by two federal district judges and by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, on grounds that it denies to the immigrant children the "equal protection of the laws" guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

The Supreme Court's decision is expected to clarify substantially the rights of undocumented aliens, who previously have been found to be entitled to certain constitutional protections, such as the right to due process. But they have been barred by Congress, with the approval of the courts, from receiving federally financed social-service benefits such as welfare and Medicaid.

Another key question is whether education is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution. The Court has previously ruled, in the Texas school-finance case known as Rodriguez, that education is not a constitutionally guaranteed right. But many legal observers believe that the illegal-alien case may result in a re-examination of--or at least elaboration upon--the question.

Bilingual Classes

Some 11,000 children of illegal aliens now attend Texas public schools, having been admitted under court order pending the resolution of the case. What concerns the state, its lawyer argued, is that the availability of free schooling might induce thousands more Mexican families to cross the border, forcing large expenditures for bilingual classes and other special services in the schools.

"We would like to reduce the incentive for illegal immigration, particularly of families with school-age children," said Richard L. Arnett, a Texas assistant attorney general.

"We have one overriding objective," Mr. Arnett later added. "That is the preservation of the educational resources of the state and the districts."

Inconsistent Position

Associate Justice John Paul Stevens intimated that there was an inconsistency in the state's position because officials, he suggested, apparently did not want to go to the "administrative trouble" of seeking deportation of undocumented aliens. "[If] they are going to live in the community," Justice Stevens asked, "you would rather have them uneducated than educated?"

While the income and property of illegal aliens are subject to taxation, Mr. Arnett conceded, he said he did not "know that they contribute at all" to the public treasury.

Justice Thurgood Marshall at one point asked John C. Hardy, a lawyer representing the Tyler, Tex., school board, whether the state denied fire protection to illegal aliens.

"I don't believe so," Mr. Hardy replied.

"Why not, if you can do this?" Justice Marshall continued.

"I'm going to take the position that ... well, that's a tough question," the lawyer said.

"So somebody's house is more important than their child," concluded the Justice.

Statute Questioned

And Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, while focusing primarily on the technicalities of residency laws, asked whether the statute "punish[es] children for a status over which they have no control."

Attorneys for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, representing the alien children, contended that the state "recruits" immigrant children in order to receive federal funds for bilingual and migrant education. Texas, said Peter A. Schey, one of the lawyers for the children, received $250 million in such funds this year--one-fourth of all the federal money allotted to the programs.

"It's a windfall," said Mr. Schey. "They count the kids for federal money, and then they don't educate them." Justice Stevens appeared to agree, at least in part, with this point. "It's hard to argue that the federal government has some rule against their being there," he told Mr. Arnett, "because the federal government gave you money on the basis of their being there."

Separate-Residency Law

Mr. Schey also argued that Texas' separate-residency law, which has been upheld by a federal court of appeals, would prevent the flood of immigrants envisioned by state officials.

"The state has a residency statute," he said. "That residency statute worked fine until 1975. Under that residency law, people were prevented from coming across the border for the [sole] purpose of coming to school. Children can't just willy-nilly come into Texas and go to school."

Children Considered Residents

He also contended that the children should be considered residents--or at least eligible to establish residency--unless it is proven that they are deportable. "It can take two to seven years to get an official letter of legal residence from the [federal] Immigration and Naturalization Service," he noted.

The state of California, which also has a large illegal-alien population, has filed a brief in the case supporting the plaintiffs' position. But the Department of Justice--which supported the plaintiffs in the lower courts--now says it has no position because there is no "federal interest" in the case.

Vol. 01, Issue 13

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