WASHINGTON — Lifting a controversial provision from California's Proposition 187, the House voted Wednesday to allow states to deny public education to children who are in the country illegally.
The estimated 355,000 illegal immigrant children in public schools in California will cost taxpayers $1.9 billion this year and $2 billion next year, according to Gov. Pete Wilson, who supports the measure.
The sponsor of the amendment to the House immigration reform bill, Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), argued that illegal immigrants are overcrowding the nation's schools and destroying conditions for the children of legal residents.
"It unties the hands of state governors who have for years been told that they must reward those who come here illegally by providing them a free education at taxpayer expense," he said.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said that only by eliminating benefits such as public schooling will the lure of America diminish in illegal immigrants' eyes.
"There is no question that offering free taxpayer goods to illegals attracts more illegals. . . ," Gingrich said. "It is wrong for us to be the welfare capital of the world."
The amendment, approved 257 to 163, would require students to sign a declaration affirming that they are in the country legally. Noncitizens would be required to show documentation and states could check the validity of the information with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Despite its inclusion in the House immigration legislation, the schooling provision faces an uncertain future. The Senate measure on the subject contains no similar language and the White House strongly opposes it.
Proposition 187, which seeks to bar illegal immigrants from a variety of public services, has not yet been put into effect because a federal judge has slapped an injunction on most of it, calling it an illegal state effort to preempt Washington's authority on immigration policy. But a new law from Congress bestowing a federal blessing on states' efforts to deny education to illegal immigrants could give supporters of the ballot initiative new ammunition.
Rep. John Bryant (D-Texas) opposed the public-schooling ban, calling it an extreme move that would make it far tougher for many members of the House to support the overall bill, which is scheduled to come up for a vote today.
Opponents said that the ban would turn into a great recruiting tool for gangs by kicking many schoolchildren out of classrooms.
"This is a mean-spirited amendment, appealing to the worst instincts in American politics today," said William Sanchez, spokesman for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Los Angeles. "The worst part is that it punishes innocent children based on the actions of their parents."
There were efforts to include other elements of Proposition 187 in the House bill.
The House adopted an amendment that would allow local and state law enforcement officers to assist the INS in detaining illegal immigrants who are violating deportation orders. Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), the sponsor, said that it makes sense to use local police to help enforce immigration laws. But opponents argued that breaking down the barrier between police and the INS would only make many illegal immigrants fear cooperating with authorities.
The House defeated another Proposition 187-style amendment, introduced by Rep. Ed Bryant (R-Tenn.), which would have required public hospitals to report illegal immigrants or lose their eligibility for federal benefits.
The House also voted to include a voluntary worker-verification system in the bill to allow participating employers to verify the immigration status of new hires over the telephone.
There is intense disagreement over whether Congress can constitutionally ban from the schools students in this country illegally.
Proposition 187's proposal to remove them from public schools was deemed unconstitutional because, the judge ruled, such matters are the domain of the federal government.
But the Supreme Court said in 1982 that it was unconstitutional for Texas to bar illegal immigrant children from its public schools. On a 5-4 vote, the court said that a state cannot discriminate against children, even noncitizens, to deny something as fundamental as a public education.
But proponents of Proposition 187 are confident that today's more conservative Supreme Court would not rule that way.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, a dissenter from the 1982 ruling, has insisted on allowing states more authority to make their own rules.
Moreover, a stamp of approval from Congress would change the legal calculus. Even the more liberal court of a decade ago said that Congress has the final authority on matters of immigration. If Congress and the president were to agree that a state can bar illegal immigrant children from its schools, many experts believe it unlikely that the Supreme Court would veto that decision.
But civil rights attorneys vowed to fight any such move.
"Congress just can't tell states to go ahead and violate the equal protection provisions of the Constitution," said Vibiana Andrade, national director of immigrant rights for MALDEF.
Wilson, one of the 31 members of the Republican Governors' Assn. who have endorsed the school amendment, said that it makes good sense for California.
"This is a hard-earned victory for the people of California who have made it clear time and time again that they do not want to foot the bill for continued illegal immigration," Wilson said in a statement.
States estimate that they spend billions of dollars a year educating illegal immigrants without any reimbursement from the federal government.
Times staff writers James Bornemeier and David G. Savage contributed to this story.