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Plan to Count Immigrants in Schools Fails

March 04, 1994|MICHAEL ROSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Capping a highly emotional debate in which the specter of Nazi Germany was raised by angry Democrats, the House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to defeat a proposal to require public schools to document the number of illegal immigrants in their classrooms.

A narrow majority of Republicans joined with Democrats to kill the legislation sponsored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) by a decisive 329-78 vote.

Offered as an amendment to a $12.4-billion education projects bill, Rohrabacher's proposal would have required schools receiving federal funds to provide the Department of Education with enrollment figures for both their undocumented immigrant students and for lawfully resident pupils whose parents are in the United States illegally.

Arguing that the nation can no longer afford "to spend billions of dollars providing free education to people who are here illegally," Rohrabacher said his amendment would have allowed state and federal authorities to calculate the costs that illegal immigration imposes on the educational system in the United States.

In California and elsewhere, "the flood of illegal aliens is breaking the bank . . . and we have to get control of it," Rohrabacher argued. "It is essential for Congress to know how much it is costing to educate illegal aliens."

But while most lawmakers acknowledged that illegal immigration is a serious problem, they also agreed with Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) that it made no sense "to turn every school official in this country into an immigration officer," burdening educators with bureaucratic responsibilities "that are no part of their jobs."

"We don't believe it's right to have little children in public schools enlisted to be spies against their parents," said Rep. William Ford (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

Although the outcome was never in doubt, the vehemence with which Democrats rose to attack the proposal inflamed tempers as the debate quickly degenerated into a shouting match filled with emotional allusions to Nazi Germany and accusations of racism.

Pounding the podium with his fist, Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), denounced the amendment as "a contemporary 'Schindler's List.' " It was "insane" even to suggest the amendment given "what we learned about Nazi Germany in the period before World War II," Ford added.

"This amendment," thundered Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), "was conceived in darkness and born of intolerance and division."

Rohrabacher said afterward that he was upset by tone of the rhetoric used against him. "If I were ever to even suggest that someone had communist sympathies because he opposed something I was pushing, the reaction (in Congress) would be outrage. . . . Yet we have to sit there for hours listening to people calling us Nazis because they oppose doing anything about this issue," he said.

"To say we can't take care of everybody is not being mean spirited," Rohrabacher added. "We just don't have the money to provide free education and other services to everybody in the world who comes here illegally."

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