Illegal Aliens and Schools

THE argument for denying public education to children who have entered the United States illegally may have a tinge of xenophobia, but it also has some economic weight. Though these children constitute a tiny percentage of students nationwide, they add significantly to the cost of public schooling in areas where illegal immigration is heaviest, notably California.

Experts estimate the added yearly cost to public education at $3.1 billion for the nation as a whole, with California paying $1.3 billion. The need to teach many of these children bilingually heightens the cost.

The push to exclude illegal immigrants from California schools is, therefore, understandable - as is the push to include a measure allowing such exclusion in the immigration reform bill before Congress.

Those efforts are not, however, well advised. To start with, there's the 1982 Supreme Court decision requiring Texas to provide public education to school-age illegal aliens. Justice William Brennan argued that keeping those children illiterate and unproductive would harm the nation. That meshes with recent assertions by police organizations that laws excluding illegals from school would increase crime. Thousands more kids could be cast adrift, left to sit at home or roam the streets while parents worked.

Beyond the strain on police, social workers, and neighborhoods, schools themselves would bear a heavy burden. Issues of documentation and legal status are complicated even for trained immigration agents. How are teachers and principals going to deal with them? The costs in added training, and in distraction from the primary work of educating, are likely to be large. And what about lawsuits if mistakes are made? Or the charges of discrimination that could arise if families with "foreign" surnames get special scrutiny?

Finally, efforts to exclude kids from public school simply skirts the real problem. Illegal immigration has to be dealt with at the border and in the workplace. Economic migrants are not penetrating US borders to get a free education for their children (though that may have secondary importance for some). They seek work. So enforcement and identification should reasonably center on the workplace, not the public schools.

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