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Elusive law


Brownsville, Texas -- I RECENTLY met some public school administrators here who are truly committed professionals. They oversee a school district of 40,000 children, the largest in "The Valley." I soon began to suspect, however, that they were not only educators but also magicians.

Think of it this way: Illegal immigration in America is, well, illegal. Yet certain legal precedents and practices not only force American school districts to educate the children of illegal immigrants, but also forbid them from even daring to ask the children or their parents if they are U.S. citizens.

Here is where the magic comes in: Only magicians can figure out how to get federal reimbursements for students when they are forbidden from knowing how many of them there are!

"Basically, we cannot check who is legal here," said Dr. Jose Manzano, one area administrator with the huge Brownsville Independent School District. "Texas law says we must educate everyone who comes, legal or illegal."

"So, for funding purposes, we will say we have 3,500 illegals," added Dr. Mona S. Hopkins. "We have an attendance office, which keeps records for three years -- in order to get the federal funding. Then after three years, we don't keep up with them anymore -- federal laws do not allow us to do that, either."

That seems bad enough. Intelligent, committed people like these, trying to work in these often socially chaotic border areas, have enough problems without having such absurd and contradictory tasks imposed on them. In a city of only 130,000, for instance, a school district with 40,000 children is enormous and overcrowded; enrollment is expected to rise to 55,000 students by the year 2000. Many children come at the ages of 10 or 12 from Mexico, having had no schooling at all. Bilingual education is the mess here it is everywhere. This system of odd "laws" forces everyone essentially to lie. Everybody knows, for instance, but no one will publicly say, that many, many children cross over the bridge from Matamoros, Mexico, every day to be schooled at American taxpayers' expense. (Here is still another example of the rampant falsification: Technically, they need a Brownsville residency, but in reality there is virtually no enforcement.)

At this point in our conversation in the district's neat, modern offices on the outskirts of this pleasant southern city, I asked what ought to have been a really stupid question: "What are these laws that forbid asking students about their status?"

The two educators thought for a minute. They looked at each other. Then they thought some more. "Everybody says there is a law," Dr. Hopkins finally volunteered. "We've tried to find it . . . but we never could."

Thus emboldened by the realization of what activist pro-immigration people are doing to our schools with their endless social engineering, I myself began searching for "the law" or "the laws." "Oh yes," everyone said, "oh yes."

After hours of phoning officials who should have had this information at their fingertips, I simply could not locate these slippery "laws." Indeed, I too began to wonder whether they actually existed. Finally, I discovered that they barely do.

Here are the two best versions:

* "There is no written law which prohibits asking students if they are illegal [immigrants]," said William Rentfro, the attorney for the school district. "There is no regulation adopted by an agency and there is no legislation. However, across the entire U.S. you are not able to ask these questions."

He explained why: In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that free education is not a "fundamental right" for illegal immigrants, but that illegal immigrants should be educated, if they are residents in the United States, because of "public policy" reasons. Not educating them would, in effect, create a "permanent and perpetual underclass" that would be a great drain on society.

"Once the courts found it was illegal to discriminate on that basis, there was no reason to ask [about citizenship]. It was said to have a 'chilling effect' on people."

* The Texas Department of Education, meanwhile, could only come up with a law that requires schools to keep all information in school records confidential. That law, originally proposed by conservatives in the 1970s to protect the rights of U.S. citizens, has come to be used by pro-immigration people to push their cause.

Unless I have missed something, the federal government paid this district $450,000 over the past two years to educate illegal immigrants -- exactly how many there are no one knows. So it is that our pro-immigration legal tinkerers, our privacy activists and our utopian meddlers have quietly but persistently been able to impose their version of America on a hard-working and increasingly overcrowded school district such as this one -- not to mention the taxpayers who cannot even find "the law."

=1 Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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