MAY 27, 1996
The new immigration reform bill before the House and Senate looks to ban the children of illegal immigrants from the public education system. Jeffrey Kaye, of KCET-TV Los Angeles, talks to a panel of educators and legislators about the ramifications of this proposed action, following a brief background segment.
JEFFREY KAYE: Negotiators from the House and Senate will soon begin to iron out the details of an immigration reform bill. One controversial amendment adopted by the House would allow states to deny public education to illegal immigrants. First some background.
MR. KAYE: In November 1994, students from Belmont High School near downtown Los Angeles walked out of class. The walk-out was to protest the effort to kick out illegal immigrants from public schools. That was one of the objects of Proposition 187, the ballot measure then before California voters. Despite street protests throughout the state, the initiative to deny social services and education to illegal immigrants passed but stalled by court challenges, it has yet to fully take effect. These days, many of the students enrolled at Belmont High are facing a renewed threat of expulsion. That's because of proposed federal legislation intended to deny education to illegal immigrants.
REP. JOHN DOOLITTLE, (R) California: Illegal immigration is seriously out of control.
MR. KAYE: The immigration bill passed by the House of Representatives in March contains a section "authorizing states to deny public education benefits to aliens not lawfully present in the United States." The bill challenges a U.S. Supreme Court decision. In 1982, the court ruled in a Texas case, Plyler Vs. Doe, that all children have a constitutional right to a public education, regardless of their immigration status. If the bill becomes law, it will have the biggest impact in California, the state with the largest number of illegal immigrants and a state where the debate over illegal immigration has been passionate and intense. Despite border crackdowns, illegal immigrants continue to be lured by jobs, especially in garment manufacturing, service industries, construction, and agriculture. But while many businesses seem dependent on cheap immigrant labor, many illegal immigrants are users of public social services. The costs are at best educated guesses. In California, the governor's office estimates that on education alone the state is spending close to $2 billion this year to school 380,000 illegal immigrant children. At Belmont High, illegal immigrants account for a large proportion of the student body. New students must answer many questions about their backgrounds, but they are not asked about their citizenship. So while principal Augustine Herrera believes many of his students are illegal immigrants, exactly how many he doesn't know.
AUGUSTINE HERRERA, Principal, Belmont High School: We don't know because we don't ask. Our district's policy in Los Angeles is not to ask. We do know that about 2/3 of them have birth places outside of the United States, so, so when you're talking about 3100 out of 4700, you can speculate whatever you want. I would say there, there is probably reason to suspect a good portion of them.
MR. KAYE: The immigration bill approved by the House of Representatives could end LA school's "don't ask, don't tell" policy; however, the provision to deny public education to illegal immigrants was not in the Senate version of the immigration bill. So the House and Senate will have to work out the differences before a final vote.
MR. KAYE: Joining me now are two educators and two members of Congress. Here in Los Angeles are David Tokofsky, a member of the LA School Board, and high school teacher Ezola Foster, and from Washington, Republican Congressman Elton Gallegly of Ventura County, California, author of the education provision of the immigration bill, and Democratic Congressman Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles. Welcome to all of you. Let me start with you, and we'll go to Washington. Let's start first here in Los Angeles with you, Ms. Foster. Umm, from your vantage point as a high school teacher, how serious is the problem, as you see it, of illegal immigrant children, and why is the bill necessary?
EZOLA FOSTER, High School Teacher: It's a serious problem because of illegal immigration being the No. 1 reason that the Los Angeles Unified School District schools are overcrowded. In addition to that, it's really, umm, setting up our children as second class citizens, and I'll give you an example of that. When children are enrolled, American children, in our public schools here in California, they must present their birth certificate. They must present proof of immunization, whereas, illegal children are simply asked when, where they were born, and they are enrolled. In addition to that, we have overcrowded classrooms, and there is no way we can control the number of teachers that are required. There's no way we control in the building of new classrooms as long as we continue to allow illegals to casually cross our borders and enter our schools without there being any checkpoint at all.
MR. KAYE: Well, Mr. Tokofsky, let me come to you. To what extent then are children, are illegal immigrant children adding to a deteriorating quality of education in Los Angeles?
DAVID TOKOFSKY, Los Angeles Board of Education: I don't think one can have any sense that that could be possible. We have no quantification of the data of numbers of children. I think we have serious problems in the achievement levels in our public schools, and we have serious problems with illegal immigration. But to blur the two and mix 'em together solves neither the illegal immigration problem nor raises the standard of achievement in our public schools. And with respect to the housing issue, the housing issue is real. There's a shortage of housing. But I would attribute that in my own district that I've just recently been elected to, to a poor administration of our facilities division--
MR. KAYE: When you say housing, you're talking about lack of space--
MR. TOKOFSKY: Right, lack of space for students in our schools, sending them to schools year around. It's not a question strictly of the student numbers but it's the fact that in 20 year we haven't built any schools, and that's because in many respects I have found in the nine months I have been there that our facilities division doesn't have the political wherewithal to go to Sacramento and get the alternative structures to house students, and to build a school like one would expect a school to be built.
MR. KAYE: What about that?
MS. FOSTER: Well, it's interesting that we don't know the quantity, but we certainly know the amount of money that's needed for bilingual education, which is again required because of illegal immigration. Uh, we cannot ask the students but teachers on a daily basis are not only observant and can see that when you get a ninth grader who's darn near 18 that's enrolling for the first time and he can't speak English, of course, you're suspicious that this is not a United States citizen. In addition to that, many of the students will tell you, they are very proud of it, especially if you expect them to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. They will immediately tell you this is not their country and that is not their flag and they refuse to do it. In addition to that, the teachers in LA Unified School District are mandated by the state to take additional training to learn to work with English--limited English speaking students. All of this is a result of illegal immigration. And to say that because we don't know exact numbers is no reason that we should be more serious about this problem and doing what the people of California have asked the legislators to do I just, I don't understand that.
MR. KAYE: Mr. Tokofsky, without getting into the debate over the numbers--
MR. TOKOFSKY: Right.
MR. KAYE: --because it's not going to get us anywhere, what about just the basic issue that illegal immigrants are a burden on, on the school district?
MR. TOKOFSKY: I have been a teacher in this district for 12 years at John Marshal High School in the Ellis Island section of Los Angeles, the major immigrant primary stopping point. I've been a soccer coach. I've been an ESL teacher, which is an English as a Second Language teacher, and I have not seen that result in our system. In fact, I have found that immigrants of all types are the spirit and the push in our system. We have a drop-out rate of 50 percent in our district, and that has nothing to do with illegal immigrants, legal immigrants. It has to do with a system that is not delivering educational services at a high standard that the public expects its public schools to have.
MR. KAYE: Let's take this to Washington, if we may, and to Mr. Gallegly first. Mr. Gallegly, maybe you can describe how will this bill work? The amendment doesn't lay out special scheme, any mechanism for enforcement, but how do you envision this working?
REP. ELTON GALLEGLY, (R) California: Well, first of all, the dynamics of the bill are as such. The bill when passed and signed into law hopefully by our President will, will provide the option of the governors of every state in this nation to either provide educating illegals or not. The governor then would have to exercise that option. Once that option is exercised to say we are not going to provide a free public education to people that have no legal right to be in this country, and let's make no mistake about it. We're not talking about the children of illegal aliens that happen to be born in the United States, illegal alien parents. We're only talking about those have illegally entered the country for themselves and then it will be up to the respective school boards to verify, just like we do for every student we do today, their birth certificate, immunization, and so on and so forth.
MR. KAYE: Got you. So once the governor says, go ahead, it's up to the schools and the teachers and the administrators to verify citizenship, is that how you envision it?
REP. GALLEGLY: It would be the same as they verify today. If my child enters in school, I have to provide a birth certificate and a certificate of immunization and so on. If they come in illegally, they stop asking questions.
MR. KAYE: What's wrong with that, Mr. Becerra?
REP. XAVIER BECERRA, (D) California: Well, if it would work that way, it would be a lot easier than it has been portrayed. It won't work that way because we know that anyone can get a birth certificate, that we have about 55,000 jurisdictions that are issuing birth certificates so anyone can come up with a birth certificate. The question will be how do you determine who to ask, and unfortunately what you have to go to is a system where you ask each and every student, even those that you know are absolutely U.S. citizens, so what you will have is the practical effect of this legislation will be tremendously difficult to implement and at the same time extremely costly. Talk to most police chiefs and local government authority officials, and they'll tell you they don't want to see this because at least we have kids in school. If you have kids kicked out of school, you have them on the streets. Most people agree. Talk to Sherman Bront, the sheriff of LA county, he says I'd rather see kids in school than on the street because they're not going to go back to the country from where they came. Remember, these kids didn't come by choice. They came because their parents came. They are now being asked to pay the price for what their parents did. What we should be doing is moving aggressively to try to deport the parents, in which case what we'll find is the children will follow. But to try to kick kids out of school and hope that the parents will leave, chances are they weren't going to get very well educated in the home country to begin with, so the kids are still better off in this country, the parents would believe, so long as the parents are able to do what they wanted to do, and that's to work in this country.
MR. KAYE: Mr. Becerra, opponents have continued to raise that issue, and the specter is of--I'm sorry, to Mr. Gallegly, I'd like you to address this--the specter of hundreds of thousands of children kicked out of schools roaming the streets. Mr. Gallegly, do you think that that might be a problem?
REP. GALLEGLY: First of all, let's look at this entire bill. This is an omnibus bill that includes a great more than denying free public education to illegal aliens. In this bill, it also provides for 5,000 new enforcement officers. I think if we can find students that have no legal right to be in this country, if we can educate them, we can surely see that they along with their families are deported to their country of origin, and given the opportunity to understand better how they can legally immigrate to this country. We shouldn't be rewarding people for violating our federal laws.
MR. KAYE: Going back--coming back to Los Angeles, if I may, do you think that teachers and administrators will be happy to enforce this law if it becomes law, Mr. Tokofsky? What will be the response?
MR. TOKOFSKY: Well, I think that people that go into the education field have a mission to educate children. They do not stop and look at what color they are, where their place of origin is. It's in their heart to enrich the lives, the hearts, and the minds of our young people, wherever they're from. And I think that it runs counter to the basic fundamental spirit of education that is so crucial to the American way of life, the American democracy, and the American economy. I think to blur the lines and not solve the illegal immigration problem, I wish people in other countries were sitting there saying, gosh, I want to get into LA Unified School District because of the program they deliver, that's not what brings people, and it distracts us from solving the education problem or the immigration problem.
MR. KAYE: Before we come to you, Mr. Gallagher, let me get Ms. Foster. As a teacher, would you enforce this?
MS. FOSTER: As a teacher, I'm really not required to enforce it because--
MR. KAYE: But if you were.
MS. FOSTER: Oh, of course, I would, because, No. 1, I am an American citizen. I'm concerned about our American children. It is not our job--we cannot provide for our posterity by educating the people of the world. As far as children having to go back to their own country to be educated, the vast majority of children take vacations in their home countries every time school is out. So there's--what's so hard about them going back to their own country to be educated?
MR. KAYE: Yes.
REP. BECERRA: If I could respond, I believe Ms. Foster has misinterpreted what I have done in the past. I have always said that we must protect our borders, we have every right as a sovereign country to make sure that the people coming to this country have a right to come in. Where Ms. Foster got her information I'm not sure but she has mischaracterized quite a bit of what I've done and also a lot of this debate, she's got some wrong information. But the more important thing is, as we've found with Prop. 187, it sounds very good, and that's what really appeals to a lot of people because they want to do the right thing. The problem is in the implementation Ms. Foster may wish to be able to implement this particular position but her school won't get any money for her to be trained to know how to go ahead and figure out who to ask, how to ask, what documents are proper, and ultimately how to make that decision. Right now, the immigration process requires that there be some type of a trier of fact or an arbitrator to determine who should and who should not be allowed to remain in the country. The schools will have to do that. Somehow we'll have to structure it. There's no money for this, and quite honestly, what you'll find is if we do find kids kicked out of school, where will they go?
REP. GALLEGLY: Can I get--
MR. KAYE: Mr. Gallegly.
REP. GALLEGLY: In fact, the argument about not having enough money to provide the instruction necessary to administrators, registrars, and so on and so forth, I think that, with all due respect to my good friend Xavier, that is really a bogus argument. If we have enough money to educate three hundred and fifty or four thousand--four hundred thousand illegal aliens in Los Angeles city schools at the cost of $2 billion per year, we certainly ought to be able to use that money to educate our, our administrators. On the other side of the coin, on the other--first of all, to say that if you don't give me this, I'm going to start committing crime, with 5,000 new agents on the street, we should return--we shouldn't use that to intimidate or extort free public service--
MR. KAYE: Mr. Gallegly, if you don't mind--
REP. BECERRA: As you may know, that those are agents that'll be on the border. They will not be in Los Angeles or San Francisco.
MR. KAYE: Maybe we can move into one other area, and that's the constitutional area.
REP. GALLEGLY: Fine.
MR. KAYE: Doesn't this fly in the face, or does this fly in the face of the Texas case, the U.S. Supreme Court?
REP. GALLEGLY: Absolutely. It does. And let me explain. You did a very good job of laying out the Texas case, with one possible exception. The Texas case, Plyler Vs. Doe on a five/four decision by the Supreme Court ruled that in the absence of congressional action, in fact, in the report of the Justice that wrote the report, he said, Congress has a role to play, Congress has not made a statement on this, and in their absence, we rule, and it was still five/four. Today, when we pass this law, we will have fulfilled that conspicuous void in the law, and I think every constitutional scholar that I've talked with says that Plyler V. Dole is on shaky ground at the very best.
MR. KAYE: Mr. Becerra, do you agree with that interpretation?
REP. BECERRA: Not completely. I do agree that there was a five/four decision. Perhaps the most important thing to take from this are two things. One, it will be costly. What we found with 187, we will find ourselves in court, spending hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, trying to litigate this because there is clearly a constitutional question, but secondly, perhaps the most important thing that the Supreme Court said in that decision was that a young child who had no decision in what his or her parents did in coming to this country is now going to be the person who pays the price for the act of that adult. Rather than trying to target the adult, which is what we should be doing and being more aggressive with our immigration laws, we've now resorted to try to punish the child, which ultimately still won't have the effect of what we want to do, and that is to reduce illegal immigration.
REP. GALLEGLY: We're punishing no one, Xavier. I think it's important to say you're not punishing, we're just merely not rewarding for illegally entering this country.
REP. BECERRA: Certainly you're punishing the child.
REP. GALLEGLY: We're not punishing.
MR. KAYE: All right. On that, on that, we're going to have to leave it. Thank you very much in Washington. Thank you both very much for joining us here in Los Angeles.