New Immigrants Swell Enrollments in Texas Border Towns

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When schools opened in Eagle Pass Tex., last Thursday, a new junior high school stood half-built and empty because the district did not have money to complete it. But teachers will face as many as 38 students per room, and a high school built for 2,000 will house nearly 3,000, when all the enrolled children arrive in a few weeks, according to Superintendent Inez Ramirez.

Moreover, the district, located in a farming town of 30,000, expects to take in at least 500 more new legal and illegal immigrant students this year, according to Mr. Ramirez, and he said he does not know where to put them.

"Every year we grow by about 500 students," said Mr. Ramirez. "We built an elementary school. We started the junior high. But over 60 of our businesses have closed. We don't have enough capital to finish it. Our biggest problem is space."

In the Brownsville School District, several hundred miles south, the situation is much the same. At least 1,000 legal and illegal immigrant children are expected this fall in the 30,000-student district. And while the shortage of bilingual teachers is serious, the shortage of classrooms poses an even more difficult problem, according to Superintendent Raul Besteiro. He needs 100 more rooms, as well as replacements for the nearly 300 World War II barracks that serve as portable classrooms.

Influxes of immigrant students from Mexico are not a new problem in the school districts that are strung along the 1,200-mile Texas border and that serve as entry points from Mexico. Most school administrators in these towns report that their districts have experienced a steady growth--caused largely by the new immigrants--of about 4 percent a year for the last 8 or 10 years.

In most districts, the numbers of legal and illegal immigrant children coming in are about equal, their officials say. About 30,000 illegal immigrants are enrolled in schools throughout the state.

What is new, the officials say, is the space shortage. They attribute the problem largely to the sudden devaluation of the peso, which has shut down many of the businesses in the border towns, leaving many local citizens unemployed; and that situation has left school districts with almost no chance of raising funds for new buildings.

In Brownsville, 250 businesses have closed in the last year, Mr. Besteiro noted. In the Rio Grande Independent School District, the unemployment rate is at 50 percent, according to Superintendent Antonio Garcia. At Nogales Unified School District, the chief entry point for immigrants in Arizona, retail trade is off by 50 percent and some classes are being held in hallways for lack of construction funds, said Superintendent James Clark.

As the border towns' economies have faltered, the immigrants have moved inland in greater numbers, so that cities like Houston now have nearly one-sixth of the state's illegal immigrants in their schools, according to state officials.

Another reason for the space shortage is the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling last year barring Texas school districts from turning away illegal immigrant students or charging them tuition. In June 1982, the Court ruled, in Plyler v. Doe, that a state law permitting schools to charge illegal alien children tuition or to reject them violated the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Distinctions No Longer Made

Although distinctions between legal and illegal students are no longer made, and the state now supports districts that teach illegal immigrants--at a rate of about $2,600 per student per year, the same amount as for any other student, state officials said--administrators in border districts say that support is not adequate.

"What we need is help for construction," said Antonio Garcia of Rio Grande, whose 5,000-student district just completed 24 new classrooms last year, and will need 20 more next year.

In California's border towns, the situation is different. School officials say they do not have serious classroom shortages. Most immigrant families move quickly out of the bor-der schools to San Diego and Los Angeles, which are only short distances away, one administrator explains. In Texas, however, distances between the border towns and the major inland cities are greater.

Texas officials say they doubt that building funds will be approved by the legislature. "The state has never gone into this area," said William Kirby, deputy commissioner of the Texas Education Agency. "Construction has always been considered a local responsibility."

Some legislators from the border area introduced bills during the past session that would have funded school-construction projects, but no appropriations were made, Mr. Kirby said.

Most school administrators from the border districts say they think the federal government, rather than the state, should produce the construction funds.

"I feel this is a federal problem," Mr. Garcia said. "The federal government is letting these children in."

Three bills have been introduced in Congress this year that could provide construction money. One, introduced in July by John G. Tower, the Republican who is the state's senior senator, is a $68-million direct-aid bill that would provide up to $1,000 per immigrant child per year over a three-year period. Schools with at least 500 immigrant students, or with an immigrant-student popula-tion that totaled at least 5 percent of the enrollment would be eligible for the aid, and it would cover both legal and illegal immigrant children, according to a spokesman for Senator Tower.

The bill is before the Senate Subcommittee on Education, Arts, and Humanities. Hearings on it were held in July. (Although Senator Tower surprised colleagues last week by announcing he will not seek re-election, broader support for his aid bill is being sought by education lobbyists.)

A second bill, introduced by Representative E. (Kika) de la Garza, Democrat of Texas, in May, would provide $500 per student per year for each immigrant child enrolled in a local school district under conditions similar to those defined in the Tower bill. The bill defines "immigrant" children as those "not born in the States, and at school here for less than three years," according to an aide to Representative de la Garza.

The de la Garza bill is scheduled to be offered as an amendment to a bill reauthorizing the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 next month.

Republican Senator Lloyd Bentsen has also authored a provision in the Youth Employment and Economic Assistance Act of 1983 appropriating funds for school construction of up to $50 million over five years for districts in counties along the Mexican border. Two earlier versions of the measure failed to pass.

Vol. 02, Issue 42

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