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Influx of Immigrant Students Strains State Education Resources

School officials in California, New York, New Jersey, Florida, and Texas want more federal aid for immigrants

OVERCROWDED classrooms and overwhelmed state budgets are causing educators and government officials in many states to lose patience with the federal government and its immigration policies.

During the 1980s, legal immigration brought 2 million new students into American public schools, according to the 1990 United States Census.

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A study released last month finds that education is the largest expense associated with immigration. The US spent $8 billion educating legal immigrants last year, estimates Donald Huddle, an economics professor at Rice University in Houston. Illegal immigration pushes educational expenses even higher.

In California, which receives nearly half of all new immigrants, legislators have introduced several bills that would bar illegal immigrants from attending public schools and universities.

"They're here illegally, yet we reward them with free services and a guaranteed education," says California Assembly-man Richard Mountjoy (R), who introduced a bill to prohibit the education of illegal immigrants.

Although the Assembly education committee voted against the bill in March, Mr. Mountjoy has been trying to amend it to other legislation.

Any effort to bar the education of illegal immigrants runs counter to a 1982 Supreme Court ruling that schools must educate all children regardless of their legal status.

Rather than trying to discourage illegal immigrants from coming to their state, other officials are pushing for increased federal assistance.

In Dade County, Fla., the fourth-largest school district in the US, 25 percent of the students are immigrants. "As a result of the foreign policy of the United States, we are a magnet for both illegal and legal immigration," says Thomas Cerra, deputy superintendent in Dade County.

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Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Haitians make up the majority of the immigrant students in Dade County. "They basically had the shirts on their backs when they entered the United States," Mr. Cerra says. "They tend to be undereducated and in poor health, with tremendous human needs." Many cannot read or write in their native language or English.

Instruction in English and basic skills for immigrant students is costly. Dade County is shouldering an additional $600 per immigrant student, according to a recent study. It's time for the federal government to "share in the burden rather than take a walk," Cerra says.

Several years ago, Dade County passed a $980-million bond referendum for school construction and renovation. It was the largest bond referendum in US history, Cerra says. But shortly after the vote, an influx of Nicaraguans poured into the area. "We essentially negated half of the bond referendum we just passed because we needed those spaces to provide classrooms to the new influx of immigration," Cerra says.

Frustration and anger are increasing in many communities with growing immigrant populations. "No one has picketed any one of these groups and said, `Send them back,' " Cerra says. "Although I've got to tell you, that could change."

Attitudes have already changed in Columbus, N.M., where children have crossed the border from Mexico to attend school for decades.

While many towns along the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border find themselves educating children from Mexico, Columbus has been openly allowing students to cross the border for more than 30 years.

Now two retirees in Columbus have filed a lawsuit arguing that local taxpayers should not have to foot the $650,000 annual bill to educate children who live in Mexico. The plaintiffs are asking the district to charge a $3,000 annual per-pupil tuition fee for students coming from Mexico.

Observers expect the case to be precedent setting.

Phoebe Watson, retired school principal and current mayor, can't remember when she first starting enrolling students from Mexico. "It was in the 1950s sometime," she says. The issue is very simple in Mrs. Watson's view: "Here were children who were coming for an education. That was my job and I gave it to them."

In most states, the focus is not on getting rid of immigrant or illegal students but rather on finding ways to pay the costs of educating them.

A coalition of education officials from California, Florida, New York, New Jersey, and Texas have banded together to fight for increased federal funds for educating immigrant students.

The Emergency Immigrant Education Act of 1984 is intended to provide supplemental aid to school districts with large immigrant populations. If Congress appropriated the $350 million authorized by the act, it would provide $500 per immigrant student in districts that qualify.

"But it's never been fully funded," says Laurie Westley, chief legislative counsel for the National School Boards Association.

Last month, intense lobbying won a 33 percent increase for the Emergency Immigrant Education Act in the House. A Senate vote on the issue is expected in September.

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