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Illegal-Immigrant Bill Gets a Key Ally


WASHINGTON — Breaking a logjam that has held up a bill on illegal immigration for months, Republican leaders won the support of a crucial lawmaker Thursday for a controversial proposal to allow states to expel illegal immigrant pupils from public schools.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a member of a joint committee that is trying to reconcile different House and Senate versions of the immigration bill, said that he will agree to a compromise that would permit many illegal immigrant students who are already enrolled in school to continue their educations.

The compromise also would make it easier to repeal the schooling ban if lawmakers decide to do so later. Earlier this week, Specter had said that he opposed the school ban, which is an element of the House version of the legislation. The provision would permit states to ban illegal immigrant children from state-financed education.

The overall bill would nearly double the number of Border Patrol agents, streamline deportation procedures, implement counterfeit-proof immigration documents and test a system to check the immigration status of some new employees.

With Specter aboard, officials said, Republicans have the votes to push a final immigration bill through a House-Senate conference committee.

If so, they will have to overcome the opposition of Democrats who are strenuously objecting to the Republicans' handling of the bill. It also remained unclear Thursday whether there is time for the House or Senate to schedule a vote on the bill before the two chambers break for their monthlong recesses this weekend.

"We're running up against some very difficult time limitations," said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who first proposed the schooling ban in the House bill. "Our objective now is getting a bill out of conference. We'll vote on it as soon as we can."

GOP leaders have worked aggressively to bring the bill to a vote soon so they could tout it later this month at the Republican National Convention in San Diego, just miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.

In the House, Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has said that he is confident a bill with the education ban will pass overwhelmingly. The provision's fate is far more uncertain in the Senate, where there is less support and Democrats are pledging a filibuster. President Clinton has spoken out against the provision and aides have urged him to veto it if it reaches his desk.

Instead of allowing states to ban all illegal immigrants from public schools, the compromise language would allow elementary school students who are already enrolled in school to finish sixth grade. At that point, to continue their educations they would have to pay tuition equaling the actual cost of educating a student in that state.

Those already in seventh grade or beyond could continue classes until they graduate from high school, provided they do not change school districts.

"The bottom line is: Are children going to be thrown out of school?" said Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza. "The rest of the details are just window dressing."

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