Texas Weighs Cost of Illegals

Lone Star State debates whether to join other states in filing lawsuit against US government over mandates

THE closer to home the cost of immigration hits, the more politically volatile the issue becomes.

That's proving true not only in the growing battle between state governors and federal politicians over who will foot the bill, but in the attitudes of Hispanic Texans over how urgently to press for change.

Critics say Washington fails to control borders, yet forces state and local governments to pick up the tab to educate, feed, incarcerate, and provide health care for illegal immigrants.

Most Mexicans living illegally in Texas are believed to reside in border towns from El Paso to Brownsville. Thus, the Rio Grande valley is most affected by the issue.

Hispanic Texans who live along the border are angry that their ever-mounting property taxes pay to educate illegal immigrants, says state Rep. Henry Cuellar (D), who represents the border city of Laredo. ``They just don't feel it's right.''

Funding for Laredo schools comes from local property taxes (48 percent), state funds (46 percent), and federal money (6 percent).

In San Antonio, ``we don't have anybody crossing over just to attend our schools,'' says Texas Sen. Gregory Luna (D). And the undocumented workers who 10 years ago would congregate openly in search of jobs have been chased out of sight by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) or have gotten legal residence under the 1986 amnesty law. As a result, illegal immigration is a nonissue in that city 150 miles from the border.

But in Brownsville, ``we see the cars cross [the border] daily, drop off their kids at school, and then go back,'' says Joe Garcia, chief of staff for state Sen. Eddie Lucio (D). He estimates that the 40,000-student Brownsville school district pays $20 million annually to educate children who don't live there or who live there illegally.

``The honest truth is: The ones that complain the loudest are the poor,'' adds Paul Cowen, administrative assistant in Mr. Lucio's office. ``I hear it a lot. It's depriving their children of an education.''

Some Hispanic Texans would even support an amendment to the US Constitution denying automatic citizenship to US-born children of illegal immigrants, Mr. Cuellar says. But state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D) says such an amendment - proposed by California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) - goes too far. ``People who are born in this country are Americans,'' she says.

Calls for change

Spurred by public outrage over unfunded mandates from the federal government, President Clinton on Friday asked Congress to provide $350 million to help pay for states to imprison illegal-alien criminals. The national cost is closer to $600 million, not counting prison construction costs.

Governor Wilson said Mr. Clinton's action would not deter him from filing immigration-related lawsuits against the United States government. Announcement of the first are expected this week. California alone spends $400 million on illegal-immigrant inmates and $1.8 billion on all illegal aliens.

On a recent visit to San Diego, Texas Senator Luna said he found tension ``you could cut with a knife.'' An Anglo told American-born Mr. Luna to ``get out of my country,'' he said.

Leticia Vasquez, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ann Richards (D), notes that the issue is not as politically explosive in Texas as it is in California. Texas doesn't have the Golden State's economic problems.

And only 9 percent of Texans are foreign-born, compared to 24 percent of Californians. Texas spends $166 million

Texas officials estimate that the state spends $166 million annually on the 550,000 illegal immigrants - almost all Mexican - who make up 3 percent of the state population.

Elena Thompson, Refugee Services director in Austin, says when undocumented workers are picked up by the INS, they usually waive deportation hearings and are bused to Mexico. Soon they make another attempt to get into Texas. ``The border is pretty porous,'' she says.

Mr. Lucio wrote to Governor Richards to urge that Texas join the lawsuit Florida filed April 12 against the federal government. Illegal aliens cost Florida $740 million a year. The Texas governor is awaiting a list of options from her state attorney general.

Other states are also facing this decision. Arizona, which spends $100 million to $200 million on illegal immigrants, is considering joining either the Florida or California actions, says Douglas Cole, a spokesman for Gov. Fife Symington (R) of Arizon To sue or not to sue

Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar (R) plans to work with Washington rather than sue over the $140 million that state spends on illegal immigrants, press secretary Mike Lawrence says.

New Jersey is ``looking very seriously'' at suing, says Carl Golden, a spokesman for Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R). That state spends more than $200 million on illegal immigrants.

But lawsuits don't get quick results. New York sued two years ago over the cost of incarcerating illegals. It plans to file another suit to recover education and health-care portions of the $970 million it spends annually on illegal immigrants.

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