WASHINGTON — Breaking a logjam that threatened to derail a measure to crack down on illegal immigration, House and Senate Republicans have decided to remove from the pending bill a contentious provision that would restrict public education for undocumented students, congressional sources say.
Under a strategy to be unveiled today, the schooling provision will be placed in another bill and brought up for a separate vote before the scheduled end of the congressional session this week, the sources said.
By separating the controversial schooling proposal from the overall immigration legislation, Congress may have cleared the way for approval of the most sweeping effort to thwart illegal immigration in a decade, a bill that is alternately criticized as too harsh and not tough enough.
"This is a way of getting the immigration bill through and forcing every member to vote up or down on providing free public education to people in the country illegally," one GOP congressman said.
The bill would double the size of the Border Patrol, increase penalties for document fraud and the smuggling of illegal immigrants, and establish pilot projects for employers to verify job applicants' work eligibility. It also would toughen penalties on illegal immigrants caught in the U.S. and erect 14 miles of triple fencing along the California-Mexico border.
The public-schooling proposal, adapted from a similar provision in the Proposition 187 ballot measure approved by California voters two years ago but struck down in federal court, emerged as a major stumbling block toward passage of the bill. Senate Democrats had vowed to hold up the legislation if the schooling restrictions were included, and the White House had threatened a veto.
Despite that opposition, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole lobbied to keep the schooling proviso in the bill. By maintaining the schooling restrictions, Dole advisors had hoped to prompt a presidential veto and hurt President Clinton in California, the state that bears the biggest financial burden from illegal immigration.
Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), a hard-liner on illegal immigration, first proposed giving states the right to oust illegal immigrants enrolled in public schools. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) strongly supported the concept, and it was added to the House's immigration bill in March by a 257-163 vote.
A version of the bill passed the Senate in May without the section allowing states to ban illegal immigrants from public schools. And as the strong Senate resistance to the schooling measure snarled efforts to reconcile the two versions of the overall bill, Gallegly modified his proposal to allow illegal immigrants to continue in classes if they pay tuition.
"My focus has always been on pursuing strong, meaningful immigration reform that will stop illegal immigration at the border and provide a method of removing those already here," Gallegly said.
There is intense disagreement over whether the Constitution even allows Congress to ban illegal immigrants from public schools.
The Supreme Court said in 1982 that it was unconstitutional for Texas to bar illegal immigrants 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 supporters of a public-schooling ban are confident that today's more conservative Supreme Court would rule differently.
Most of the immigration bill's measures dealing with those who enter the country illegally enjoy broad, bipartisan support. But Republicans have added some restrictions on legal immigration that are contentious. For instance, a compromise bill prepared by House and Senate Republicans would restrict benefits for legal immigrants even further than the recently passed welfare bill, as well as set higher income requirements for those who seek to sponsor legal immigrants into the country.
To reduce false claims of asylum, the bill also would shorten the time refugees have to make such claims and limit appeals for those who enter the country with false documentation, even if they are fleeing persecution.
Republicans have also proposed special waivers of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act for the construction of border fences, barriers and roads.
Environmentalists say that such waivers could cause damage to Southwestern ecosystems and further endanger the Sonoran pronghorn antelope, the Sonoran ocelot and the masked bobwhite quail.