They can attend public schools through high school but often can’t get the financial aid needed for college.
They can get emergency medical treatment but often can’t get the preventive care to keep minor health issues from becoming full-blown problems.
And, under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent proposals, undocumented immigrant children would be given unprecedented access to healthcare but would lose long-term welfare benefits.
Such children often face a confusing thicket of public policies reflecting sympathy for their vulnerability and disapproval of their parents’ illegal behavior.
State officials say the governor’s health and welfare proposals are not meant to be contradictory, nor are they aimed at immigration control. They merely end welfare benefits after five years for children, documented or not, with ineligible parents. But immigrant activists argue that the governor’s proposals are counterproductive.
Arguments over aid to undocumented children have raged for more than three decades.
In a landmark 1982 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a 1975 Texas law denying free public education to undocumented school-age children. The court, noting the primacy of public education in conveying national values, said that children are innocent victims of their parents’ decisions, are subject to equal-protection laws and can be barred from school only to further a “substantial state interest.” Texas had not sufficiently done so, the court ruled in the 5-4 decision.
Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, argues that the costs of educating undocumented children have grown since then, particularly in California. In a 2004 study, the Washington-based immigration control group argued that the state spent $7.7 billion educating the children of undocumented immigrants, money, the authors say, that could have been used to buy 2.8 million computers, to hire 31,000 teachers and to reduce class size.
In 1994, California voters eliminated free public education and other benefits to illegal immigrants by passing Proposition 187. A federal judge ruled the measure unconstitutional, but former state Sen. Richard Mountjoy, a Republican, and others are gathering signatures for a similar initiative that would deny public aid and other benefits to illegal immigrants.
Currently, the educational field’s biggest battles are over whether to grant undocumented college students access to in-state college fees.
In a 2005 report, the Federation for American Immigration Reform estimated that the in-state fee discounts potentially cost California as much as $290 million annually.
Undocumented children, like all illegal immigrants, now are given emergency medical care, but efforts to extend broader health benefits to them were rejected twice last year in California. Voters rejected Proposition 86, which would have increased the tobacco tax to expand healthcare programs for low-income undocumented children and others, and the Legislature also failed to pass a healthcare proposal to cover illegal immigrant children.
Schwarzenegger’s proposal to extend medical care to all children regardless of legal status has won widespread praise, however, from health advocates.
The public’s softer attitude toward children is one reason that many immigrant advocates believe that a proposal to legalize some undocumented students may have the best shot at passage of all the immigration legislation pending in Congress.
The proposal, known as the DREAM Act, would give legal status to most high school graduates and college-bound students “with good moral character” who have been in the United States for at least five years and arrived in the country at age 15 or younger.
The proposal has won bipartisan support, although immigrant advocates say it can pass only as part of a comprehensive bill that includes border security and other enforcement measures.
A family’s story