LOS ANGELES — Teenager Zain Aguila, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, says if he were prohibited from attending public school in southern California, he would remain in the United States and "make ends meet however he could.
"It would cut off my aspirations to be a community leader," says Zain, who crossed the border in 1993 and attends a high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. "But I would not return home [to Mexico]."
Zain and the children of perhaps 3.5 million other undocumented immigrants in the US are at the heart of a heated national debate over how to limit illegal immigration. Among the provisions in a sweeping reform bill that passed the US House last month is one that would allow states to deny public education to illegals.
The idea has generated a storm of controversy, and President Clinton has pledged to veto any bill that allows states to bar illegal immigrants from public schools. As the Senate crafts its version of an immigration-reform
bill this week, the debate about providing free public services for illegals centers on cost - the dollar costs of keeping illegals in school versus the social cost of keeping them out.
Both sides in the debate have already fine-tuned their arguments here in California, where voters in 1994 approved 2-to-1 an initiative barring illegals from receiving welfare, health care, and free public schooling. Though implementation of Proposition 187 has been stalled in court, copycat initiatives are pending in several states, and pressure on politicians has dominoed to Congress.
The move to crack down on illegal immigration - first in California and now in Congress - represents a backlash to the swelling number of foreigners who entered the US in the past decade. Supporters of the crackdown hope that denial of free public services, such as schooling, will act as a deterrent to those who would sneak into the US.
"Voters have felt that the federal government has dropped the ball by not cracking down sooner and harder at the border," says Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigrant Reform (FAIR). "Now they are trying to take matters in their own hands by making it known they don't want to foot the school bills for illegals."
Mr. Mehlman and some other immigration reformers, however, admit illegals won't be deterred from coming to America so long as there is the promise of jobs - and so long as US laws requiring employers to verify the immigration status of employees are not beefed up. (The Senate bill is expected to include, among other things, a pilot program to improve employer verification of alien status.)
Making sense out of dollars
Nonetheless, the idea that taxpayers should not be financing the educations of people who are in the country illegally seems to resonate with voters. But the issue may have more to do with perceptions of fairness than with dollars and cents.
Jeff Passell, a researcher on immigration issues for the Urban Institute in Washington, says there is no easy way to calculate dollar costs of illegals in schools.
"There is no clear indication that keeping illegals out of school will significantly save money or that keeping them in will cost money," says Mr. Passell. Noting that fewer kids could mean the firing of teachers and less efficient use of facilities such as buildings and schools, he says: "It is a very complicated equation."
Researcher George Vernez of the Rand Corporation, a think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif., estimates the number of school-aged illegals nationwide to be between 300,000 and 350,000, at a yearly cost per student of $5,000.
Crime and punishment
The assumption behind denying schooling to illegals, Passell and others say, is that if the children can't attend, the parents will take them home - or that fewer would come to the United States in the first place.
But Zain, who Friday graduated with honors from a young leadership program of the Central American Resource Center here, says most of the illegals he knows would not go back to Mexico. Many would join gangs and thrive in whatever way they could, he says.
Some law-enforcement officials have vigorously objected to ousting illegals from school, saying such a move would be problematic for community safety. Immigrant and civil rights groups see the idea as scapegoating
Many educators, meanwhile, say they do not want to play government watchdog.
"This is the most ridiculous idea I've ever heard," says Melanie Deutsch, principal of Dixie Canyon Elementary, a Los Angeles Unified School District school in the San Fernando Valley. "They want us to take the time to research who is legal and who is not ... we are here to teach."
Prohibiting illegals from attending public school also includes the thorny problem of sorting out which children are US-born offspring of illegals - and therefore legally American citizens - and which are children who illegally crossed the border.
The House immigration-reform bill allows states to discontinue public education for illegals. At press time, the Senate had not included such a provision in its bill. Differences between the two bills would have to be ironed out in conference committee. Because Clinton has indicated he will veto the schools measure, many observers feel the House inclusion may amount to little more than political "veto bait" - a way for House Republicans to claim credit for taking action while blaming Clinton for being soft on immigration.