Panel To Advise Broad Changes On Immigration

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A federal commission will soon make recommendations that could change how immigrant children and their families enter the country, where they settle, and how they are treated.

Many observers predict that the nine-member, bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform will be a driving force on immigration policy. The panel, which is looking at both legal and illegal immigration, will offer its first recommendations to Congress at the end of the month.

The commission does not plan to challenge the landmark 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, in Plyler v. Doe, that requires schools to educate all students without regard to immigration status. But it will be studying everything from the country's refugee-resettlement policy to managing the U.S.-Mexican border, including the possibility of federal aid to help states bear the burden of providing services to illegal immigrants.

Part of that burden is the cost of educational services. The 1990 Census counted roughly two million foreign-born school-age children. The Urban Institute estimates that children of immigrants will make up nearly a quarter of the nation's school-age population by 2010.

Created in 1990 and headed by former Rep. Barbara C. Jordan, a Texas Democrat, the commission has held numerous hearings since last year on immigration's social and economic impact.

Ms. Jordan, who has a well-known civil-rights record but essentially no background in immigration policy, plans to deliver the group's first formal recommendations to Congress on Sept. 30, with more hearings and reports to come before its mandate expires in 1997.

Many observers said that both the Clinton Administration and Congress are waiting for the panel's input before proposing legislation in the area of immigration reform, a hot political topic at both the state and federal levels.

"The commission is really the only game in town," said Frank Sharry, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which represents some 200 groups ranging from trade unions to civil-rights organizations.

Limiting Benefits

Although the panel represents a wide political spectrum, its executive director, Susan Forbes Martin, said there is already a consensus on one contentious point: The country's estimated 3.4 million illegal immigrants should not receive government benefits except in "emergency" situations or where there is a "welfare interest."

However, that exception would include public elementary and secondary education, child immunizations, and child-nutrition programs, Ms. Martin said.

Some of the panel's preliminary proposals, which Ms. Jordan briefly outlined at a Senate hearing last month, already have drawn criticism from groups such as the National Council of La Raza and the American Civil Liberties Union.

For example, immigrant-rights advocates strongly oppose creation of a national data registry that employers would use to verify whether a potential employee was qualified to work legally. Many advocates said it would lead to the adoption of a national identification card, because without such a card there would be no easy way to show that a valid Social Security number belonged to the person applying for the job.

The "climate" that such an I.D. card would create would have a "devastating impact on people's confidence in sending their kids to school," said Lucas Guttentag, the director of the A.C.L.U.'s immigrant-rights project.

Although the panel has repeatedly said that the registry would be used only in the workplace, many observers said that once such a system was created it would be difficult to prevent abuses of it.

"There are definitely some deep educational concerns," said Eugene E. Garcia, the director of the Education Department's office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs, who represents the department at the commission's meetings.

"I see the potential for abuse in schools," he said.

The California Question

Although the panel has said that it does not plan to challenge Plyler v. Doe, many immigrant-rights advocates said they are concerned about the presence of one panel member who is attempting to do just that.

The panelist, Harold W. Ezell, an Immigration and Naturalization Service official during the Reagan Administration, is a co-author of Proposition 187, a proposal Californians will vote on in November. It would prohibit illegal-immigrant students from attending public schools and would require schools to report the immigration status of students and their parents to federal officials. (See Education Week, June 8, 1994.)

"It's hard to imagine that someone who's authored Proposition 187 does not have a political agenda to fight for" on the panel, said Arturo Vargas, the vice president of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Mr. Ezell, however, likened such critics to "Chicken Little saying the sky is falling," and said last week he does not intend to bring up the proposal at all.

"My agenda is not to push the California problem onto the commission," he said. "We only need one state to do what California will do in November to get this back to the Supreme Court."

No Data, No School Aid

With lawsuits pending in which states heavily affected by immigration--such as California, Florida, and Texas--demand that the federal government reimburse their cash-strapped treasuries for the cost of providing educational and other services for illegal immigrants, such "impact aid" for states is a hot-button issue.

And education has long been a sore spot for states serving many immigrants. Per-student funding for the Education Department's emergency-immigrant-education program has dropped 44 percent since 1989, to about $35 a student.

But the commission will not recommend in the Sept. 30 report that states receive education aid, Ms. Martin said. The reason, she said, is that nobody knows how many illegal-immigrant children are in American classrooms.

There are estimates, but many are based on assumptions about the illegal population in general, about which there are conflicting data as well.

Next year, the commission plans to convene a panel through the National Academy of Sciences to recommend improved techniques for estimating the illegal-immigrant population. An upcoming report by the Office of Management and Budget is also expected to contribute to the debate by analyzing how states have come up with their cost estimates and providing models for improved estimates.

The commission will not, as some advocates feared, ask states to present a "bill" for their immigration costs, which presumably would have included estimates of education costs. That could have required schools to ask students to declare their immigration status, which would violate federal privacy laws.

In any case, Ms. Martin said, federal aid is not likely to cover all the costs states are seeking reimbursement for.

Emergency Planning Studied

Another goal of the panel is to foster communication between different levels of government about immigration matters, and to formalize a national "chain of command" that could make and carry out plans for immigration crises.

"We want to make sure that communication is not just happening on an ad hoc basis contingent upon the personalities of the people involved," Ms. Martin said.

This could be of direct benefit to school systems struggling to anticipate the number of new immigrant students they will have to serve.

In Dade County, Fla., for example, school officials earlier this year drafted a controversial "emergency" plan for housing an expected wave of new Cuban and Haitian students in makeshift classrooms. (See Education Week, June 22, 1994.)

Apart from getting information from the news media, some top Dade officials said they talk regularly with the U.S. Coast Guard to find out how many immigrants are being spotted on the waters around the Florida Straits--and how many might be children.

"I think we can have a national policy that tells us when students are coming and where they may be going," Mr. Garcia said. "Right now it's more hit or miss."

Vol. 14, Issue 02

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