GOP Plan Ties Immigration Status, Services

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Schools could be required to check students' immigration status to ensure that they qualify for programs such as federally funded school meals under a Republican plan to retool welfare programs and balance the federal budget.

Although details are scarce, advocacy-group officials and congressional aides said last week that the bill would bar illegal-immigrant children and some legal immigrants from receiving subsidized school meals, and possibly from Head Start preschool programs. And it might also restrict some legal immigrants' access to the Title I compensatory-education program.

"This would mean enormous new burdens for schools if any of this survives," said Charles Kamasaki, a vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy organization here. "I think schools have no idea what they're in for."

President Clinton is expected to veto the so-called budget-reconciliation bill, which seeks savings in welfare, nutrition, and student-loan programs as part of the GOP's seven-year balanced-budget plan. But observers say that many of the provisions affecting immigrants are likely to resurface in a free-standing welfare-reform bill or in later drafts of the reconciliation bill. (See related stories, pages 18 and 20.)

The provisions indicate that, as expected, Republicans intend to restrict immigrants' access to social programs in an effort to carve out savings and make a statement on immigration policy. (See Education Week, Sept. 20, 1995.)

Implicit in such a policy is a requirement that federal grantees--such as schools--verify students' immigration status, observers say. That would place heavy administrative burdens on schools and raise legal and ethical questions.

While other education programs might not be subject to the restrictions, the vast majority of the nation's schools offer federally subsidized lunches, which feed about 25 million students each day.

'A Logistical Nightmare'

"So we're no longer the national nutrition program, we're the Border Patrol," said Penny E. McConnell, the director of food and nutrition services for the Fairfax County, Va., public schools and the president of the American School Food Service Association.

"Just the logistics of this is a nightmare," she said. "Plus, we'd have some very hungry kids in our schools."

The plan's impact would probably not be restricted to children receiving free or reduced-price meals, since meals served to students who pay the full price are subsidized through aid that helps run the whole program, school-nutrition advocates said.

"Basically, we're talking about checking any kid who enters the lunch line," said Edward Cooney, the deputy director of the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based advocacy group. "This is an unfunded mandate."

Besides creating an administrative burden, some educators fear that the proposed policy would discourage immigrant students from attending school, even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1982, in Plyler v. Doe, that children are entitled to a public education regardless of immigration status.

"If families knew I'd be asking for papers, I might lose one-third of my student body," said Tom s E. Revollo, the principal of Thomas J. Waters Elementary School in Chicago, an immigrant-heavy school where 97 percent of the 700 students participate in the school-meals program.

"You ask five families for these documents and I can guarantee another 100 would know about it the next day, and many would not show up for school," Mr. Revollo said. "So then you're talking about truancy and the juvenile-justice system.

"And how do you ask about their status?" he continued. "Document it? Verify it?"

Mr. Kamasaki said that schools generally are barred from asking students about their immigration status because to do so might have a "chilling effect" on school attendance, and could thus violate the Supreme Court's Plyler ruling.

Schools could lose federal money if they failed to screen out ineligible children, but could also be subject to lawsuits if they misclassified a child, Mr. Kamasaki said.

"I guarantee there will be litigation around these issues," he said.

Multiple Provisions

The reconciliation bill would make "not qualified" immigrants--a category that includes illegal immigrants and certain temporary legal immigrants--ineligible for any federal "public benefit." That is defined as "direct spending" for an individual, household, or "family eligibility unit." Food aid and postsecondary education are specifically listed as being included.

The provision likely would not cover most precollegiate education programs, in part because they are not listed and the funds go to states or school districts, not individuals, Republican aides said.

"We read this to exclude elementary and secondary programs, and our understanding is that that was the intention, but we'd prefer language that was a lot more clear," said Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith, who said the Clinton administration would fight any immigrant restrictions in school-related programs.

It is less clear whether the illegal-immigrant ban would cover Head Start, according to advocacy groups and Capitol Hill aides. Advocates also fear that Head Start would be covered by a separate provision that would exclude certain legal immigrants from some federal programs for their first five years in the country.

Elementary and Secondary Education Act programs are specifically exempted from that provision. But they are not exempted from the effects of yet another section of the bill that would limit some legal immigrants' access to federal aid.

The so-called "deeming" provisions would mandate that for "means tested" programs, the immigrant's eligibility would be based not only on his own income or his parents' income, but also the income of whoever sponsored the family's immigration. This would mean that fewer immigrants would qualify for programs targeted at low-income recipients.

'Not Black or White'

Head Start serves mostly poor children, and many observers said it would probably fit the definition of a means-tested program.

"We're running everything by our lawyers," said an official at the Department of Health and Human Services, which administers Head Start.

The "deeming" provisions might also apply to Title I. Schools qualify for Title I aid based on the percentage of their students who come from poor families. In the past, individual students in those schools were selected based on low achiev-ment; under the newest version of the law, students must also be poor to participate, unless they attend a high-poverty school that uses its Title I funds on a schoolwide basis.

Education Department officials argued last week that Title I does not fit the definition of programs subject to the deeming provision.

"It's not absolutely clear, black or white," a House Republican aide said.

"The regulation writers will have to go through the list of programs and decide, does it or doesn't it fit," the aide said. "We didn't spell things out program by program because members would rather talk broad principles."

Earlier versions of the welfare-reform legislation would also have applied the deeming rule to higher-education programs, putting federal student aid out of reach for many legal-immigrant students. The reconciliation bill would instead require immigrants to have their sponsor or another U.S. citizen cosign their student loans. Illegal immigrants are already ineligible for federal student aid.

Vol. 15, Issue 14

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