Equity & Diversity

House Backs School Ban on Illegal Immigrants

By Lynn Schnaiberg — March 27, 1996 3 min read
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The House voted last week to allow states the option of barring illegal-immigrant children from receiving a free public education.

The 257-163 vote, on an amendment to a broad immigration-reform bill, demonstrates that the cost of educating undocumented children is an issue that resonates beyond California, where voters endorsed the controversial Proposition 187 ballot initiative in 1994.

The California measure, which seeks to deny most public benefits, including education, to illegal immigrants, has for now been blocked by the courts. (See Education Week, Nov. 29, 1995.)

The sponsor of the House amendment, Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., argued that education, like other social programs, is a magnet for illegal immigrants and that the cost of educating such children is too high in an era of tight school budgets.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that 3.4 million illegal aliens live in the country, but there are no official counts of undocumented students.

Court rulings and federal civil-rights and family-privacy laws bar schools from asking children about their immigration status.

In a 1994 study, the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, estimated that it cost seven states heavily affected by immigration some $3.1 billion to educate 641,000 undocumented children in fiscal 1993.

The authors said the report probably overestimated the number of undocumented students and underestimated the cost of educating them. (See Education Week, Sept. 21, 1994.)

“Are we really prepared to overrule the citizens of California?” Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said in urging his colleagues to support the House measure. “If this amendment goes down, I move that we take the money out of the rest of the budget and we absorb federally the cost of these children.”

Forty-four Democrats joined 213 Republicans in backing the amendment.

Observers last week cautioned that the proposal faces many hurdles, in Washington and in the courts, before it could become a reality.

“This is not a done deal by any stretch of the imagination,” said Cecilia Mu¤oz, a senior immigration-policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, a Washington-based Hispanic advocacy group.

“Aside from the fact that this is immoral, ineffective, and a piece of demagoguery,"she added, “what it leads us to is an expensive court challenge.”

No Senate Provision

The House measure is attached to HR 2202, a broad bill that seeks to curb illegal and legal immigration and restrict or bar certain public benefits to immigrants. The bill was approved 333-87 late last week.

The amendment would allow states to deny illegal immigrants a public education or to treat undocumented children as “nonresidents” who could be charged tuition to attend public schools.

The companion bills that the Senate Judiciary Committee took up last week contained no comparable provision.

And such a measure might face a veto from President Clinton, who opposed Proposition 187.

“The fundamental issue is whether we should harm the undocumented children who live here--and ourselves and our values--for the transgressions of their parents,” Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said in a letter last week urging Congress to oppose Mr. Gallegly’s amendment, which he said was “fundamentally unfair.”

If such a provision were to become law, the U.S. Supreme Court would likely have the final say.

In its 1982 decision in Plyler v. Doe, the high court ruled 5-4 that illegal-immigrant children had the same right as other children to a free public education.

The case concerned a 1975 Texas law that permitted school districts to charge tuition to, or refuse to educate, children who could not provide documentation of their legal status. The justices held that the law violated the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 1996 edition of Education Week as House Backs School Ban on Illegal Immigrants


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