Immigration Spurs Debate On Capitol Hill

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With immigration shaping up as a potent political issue as the 1996 presidential campaign gears up, Congress is considering numerous immigration-related proposals that could affect schools.

The Senate last week neared completion of a welfare-reform bill with provisions that would restrict immigrants' access to federal programs, including some education aid. (See story, page 22.)

Other proposals range from reducing the number of legal and illegal immigrants entering the country to giving states the authority to refuse to educate illegal-immigrant children.

Despite growing public unease about immigration, the proposals quickly become controversial when the details are debated, and they face big legislative obstacles.

But advocates for immigrant students fear that even if no new legislation is enacted, the debate's high profile and the intensity of its rhetoric could influence how such students are treated. And there is at least some anecdotal evidence that this may already be happening.

"The more the furor heats up, the more the rhetoric gives permission for people who are in public roles to ACT out their private attitudes," said Joan M. First, the executive co-director of the Boston-based National Coalition of Advocates for Students. "They feel more comfortable doing it because they feel they have more support, and they're probably right."

Political Ammunition

The political currency of immigration issues was highlighted recently when Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., the leading candidate for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, used a heavily promoted Labor Day speech to criticize "multilingual education" and call for formally recognizing English as the country's official language. (See Education Week, Sept. 13, 1995.)

One of his rivals, Gov. Pete Wilson of California, has made immigration a cornerstone of his campaign after reaping considerable political mileage in last year's gubernatorial race from his support of Proposition 187. That ballot measure, which was approved but has been challenged in court, would bar the state's illegal immigrants from receiving most public benefits, including K-12 education. (See Education Week, Oct. 26 and Nov. 16, 1994.)

Interest in the issue can also be seen in the widespread media coverage of a report, released by the U.S. Census Bureau last month, that provided more ammunition for those seeking to stake out a get-tough stance on immigration. The agency reported that 8.7 percent of U.S. residents in 1994 were foreign-born--the highest percentage since World War II and nearly double 1970 levels.

And last week, the congressionally mandated U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform said the issues it plans to study further include bilingual education, affirm-ative action, and student visas. The panel has made recommendations for reforming both legal and illegal immigration. (See Education Week, June 14, 1995.)

But trying to track the likely educational impact of the multitude of immigration-related proposals that have been floated on Capitol Hill is a task that has frustrated even some expert observers.

Targeting Benefits

A welfare-reform bill could be the first relevant legislation to win approval this year.

Both HR 4, which the House passed last spring, and S 1120, which the Senate is expected to pass this week, would bar undocumented immigrants entirely from federal "means-tested programs."

While the bills do not specify which programs are included, congressional aides and observers said that such a provision would probably encompass those such as subsidized school lunches and the Head Start preschool program. They said the bills probably would not bar undocumented children from programs like Title I compensatory education, where funding is less directly tied to individual children.

An amendment that Sen. Jim Exon, D-Neb., was prepared to offer would have gone even further, to ban nearly all federal benefits to illegal immigrants. The measure originally included a ban on participation in federally funded education programs, except for school-meals and immunization programs, but was scaled back to apply only to postsecondary education. The modified amendment passed by a vote of 94-6.

The welfare bills would also curtail benefits for some legal immigrants. Both would restrict their access to so-called safety-net programs, such as Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid; the Senate bill would also bar access to other programs for an immigrant's first five years in the country.

In addition, provisions in both bills that would require many immigrants to report their sponsors' income in addition to their own would likely make them ineligible for most student-aid programs. The stricter House provision would also apply to Head Start and school-meals programs. Undocumented immigrants are already ineligible for federal student aid.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Although neither bill would require schools to ask students about their immigration status to determine their eligibility for programs, observers say that idea is implicit in the proposals. Schools are now barred from asking such questions by federal law and court rulings, and an effort to change that would probably provoke legal challenges.

"Is the principal supposed to be the pseudo-immigration attorney to determine what the person's status is? It's ridiculous," said Jeff Simering, the legislative director for the Council of the Great City Schools.

Besides restrictions on federal benefits--an idea that is likely to arise again in conjunction with other legislation--Congress is also likely to consider proposals to reduce the number of legal and illegal immigrants who enter the country. Observers say that such a bill, which could translate into a reduced number of immigrant children entering schools in the future, has a good chance to pass.

More far-reaching proposals are also under discussion. But observers noted that these would face the lengthy and difficult process required to alter the U.S. Constitution--or overturn U.S. Supreme Court rulings--and suggested that such proposals are being introduced primarily to score political points.

For example, some advocates of restricted immigration have proposed changing the definition of citizenship so that a child born on U.S. soil to noncitizen parents would no longer automatically be a citizen himself. This possibility takes on added significance in an environment where even legal immigrants may see their access to public services restricted, advocates noted.

A measure allowing states to decide whether to provide undocumented immigrants a public K-12 education, as a congressional task force has recommended, would presumably also face legal challenges. In the landmark 1982 case Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution's equal-protection guarantees that all students be served regardless of immigration status.

Proposition 187 defies that ruling, making California a test case in immigration policy. The courts have barred its implementation, and years of legal wrangling over the measure are expected.

State officials sent mass mailings to California schools reminding them that the Plyler ruling and federal privacy laws generally bar schools from asking about students' immigration status.

Rhetoric Shapes Reality?

But the emotions stirred by the debate over the measure are evident in places like San Diego, where rumors surfaced this summer that undocumented students were among those being bused to some of the district's most desirable schools under a plan to maintain racial balance. The rumors drove one parent--who is also a high school teacher in the district--to demand that school board members reveal which students were undocumented.

"I feel like not even one U.S. citizen should be displaced by one illegal alien breaking the law," Chris D. Thayer said in a recent interview. "I'm not the only teacher who feels this way, but a lot feel intimidated because it's not politically correct."

Ms. Thayer emphasized that in her role as a teacher she would not report undocumented students to immigration officials. But people like Gus S. Chavez, a member of a Mexican-American advisory panel for the San Diego Unified School District, say they worry about school employees "taking matters into their own hands, in a moment of emotion."

Such concerns are not confined to California.

Advocates for immigrants in Hempstead, N.Y., for example, have charged that some school registrars applied residency laws unfairly. The schools in that working-class community are underfunded and overcrowded, the advocates say, and are facing an influx of Central American immigrants.

Many of them do not own homes and cannot show rental documents with their names because multiple families share a single apartment. But school registrars demanded such proof from immigrant families and accepted no substitutes, said Angela Divaris, a lawyer at the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead.

The 6,100-student district has since amended its residency policy and transferred a registrar whose inflexibility had been criticized, said Gilbert Henoch, a lawyer for the district.

The registrars "probably didn't exercise their discretion broadly enough," Mr. Henoch said. "They could be acting out their frustrations in trying to bar these people, but I can't say for certain."

A lawsuit hinging on similar complaints in a Boston-area suburb is pending in federal court.

Vol. 15, Issue 03

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