Houston — There are tacos for lunch and English lessons all afternoon. Such is the routine at the Maranantha School in East Houston, where Mexican children illegally residing in this country receive a minimal education in crowded classrooms using denoted books.
Texas law denies "undocumented" aliens the right to a free education, making this the only state in the country with a sizable immigrant population to practice such as policy. In Texas these children can pay a fee (usually $1,000) to enroll in public schools or attend one of the few private schools, like Maranantha, set up community groups to accommodate illegal aliens.
Now the controversial Texas education policy faces two key legal challanges in federal courts, raising a number of questions with national implications, parties on both sides of the dispute agree:
* If the Texas statute is overturned, will there be a sharp increase of illegal aliens migrating into the state and then elsewhere as they fan out across the country?
* Would a court ruling upholding the right to a free education eventually lead to guaranteeing illegal aliens access to other types of local and federal social services, such as welfare and social security?
* Should the federal government be responsible for the costs of educating illegal aliens, since it sets national immigration policy and is charged with policing the orders?
"All these concerns are legitimate, but we feel as a matter of social policy it is in the long-term best interest of the country to educate these people," says Doris Meissner, a deputy associate attorney general with the US Department of Justice, which has supported those trying to overturn the Texas law.
Next month 17 separate law suits filed against Texas school districts, all challenging the constitutionality of the state law, will be consolidated and brought before a US district court judge in Houston.
Meanwhile, an appeal by the Tyler-Independent School District, near Dallas, involving an alien-education case is before the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1977 the Tyler suit was decided in favor of allowing illegal alien children a free education.The court has agreed to "expedited consideration" of the case, which means it could be heard in a matter of weeks.
"If we're forced to educate illegal aliens, the federal government should pay for it," declares Texas Assistant Attorney General Lonny Zwiener, who is involved in the state's defense in the consolidated suit going to court next month.
The state's position is that educating illegal alien children is not a legitimate use of public funds. Further, it believes a free-education policy would encourage a massive influx of Mexicans across the border eager to enroll their children in US schools.
Mr. Zwiener views immigration policy as a federal responsibility and does not think Texas taxpayers should bear the brunt, through higher education costs, of the failure of the federal government to steam to flow of illegal aliens from Mexico.
Hispanic groups, the US Justice Department, and other civil rights advocates disagree with these assessments.
"The Texas policy is a form of frontier justice," says Ruben Bonilla Jr., a Texas lawyer and president of the League of United Latin-American Citizens, the nation's largest Hispanic organization.
Mr. Bonilla believes the federal Constitution guarantees all inhabitants of the United States, regardless of their legal status, equal protection and due process. These rights, he argues, are violated by categorically refusing undocumented aliens the right of free education.
Moreover, Mr. Bonilla says sociological research does not support the notion that free schooling would draw more illegal aliens into Texas. "They come here for jobs and to develop skills they can take home," he says. "Education is not their reason for coming."
Also, opponents of the Texas statute say illegal aliens are entitled to public schooling since the pay sales taxes, and property taxes indirectly through rent.
"These families are paying taxes, and they don't get any social services for their money," said Jorge Duran, director of a school for illegal aliens in Houston.
Associate US Attorney General Meissner does not think the right to a free public education will be to guarantee illegal aliens access to other social services. "Education has been established [in the courts] as a fundamental right. But other types of services have not," she says.