The Senate fears closing school gates on illegal migrants will push children into the hands of gangs. Tim Cornwell reports. Senior Republicans are backing away from a Bill, endorsed by their party's presidential candidate Bob Dole, that would bar the gates of American schools to illegal immigrant children.
The measure, known as the Gallegy amendment after the California Republican congressman who introduced it, was passed by the House of Representatives by 257 votes to 163 earlier this year.
But it fell short of support in the Senate, where critics said it would throw innocent children out on the streets and into the hands of gangs. Opponents succeeded in excluding it from a larger Bill aimed at denying a range of benefits to illegal immigrants.
Five Republican senators this week joined 42 Democrat colleagues in urging the Republican leadership to drop the "ill-advised" idea. Its fate will now be negotiated at a conference committee between the House of Representatives and the Senate. Both are controlled by Republicans, but the Senate traditionally takes a more moderate line.
In an election year the Gallegy amendment plays to rising sentiment against illegal immigration, particularly in California, regarded as a key state for Mr Dole if he is to overcome President Bill Clinton's wide lead in the polls. But prominent Republicans are now voicing caution.
"I don't like it," said senator Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate judiciary committee. "I worry about the children." Congressman Henry Hyde, a key deputy of Speaker Newt Gingrich, has also opposed the Bill.
California's Republican governor Pete Wilson is an outspoken supporter. The state spends nearly $2 billion a year (Pounds 1.32 billion), it is claimed, on educating 350,000 illegal children, who are accused of flooding its school system at a huge cost to taxpayers.
Two years ago Californians approved proposition 187, which would deny a range of benefits to immigrants, including schooling, by a large majority. But proposition 187 has been tied up in local courts, and immigration remains a potent political issue. The Gallegy amendment would allow states to pass and enforce similar measures. But New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, Texas governor George Bush and his father the ex-President have come out against it.
Teachers unions, as well as the Clinton administration, have denounced Gallegy from the start, and President Clinton has promised to veto any Bill that contains it. Police organisations, whose opinions may carry more weight with conservatives, have also come out against it.
"I think there is a good deal of bipartisan sentiment in opposition to this amendment. A majority of people in the US don't support it," said James Pasco, national director of the Fraternal Order of Police.
His organisation was working not from an education but a public safety stance, he said. "If these kids are turned loose on some of the toughest, meanest streets in the country, they are going to become just additional prey for the violent criminals who work those streets. The question is whether Republicans want a Bill, or an election issue."
Supporters of the Bill say that free education is one temptation that draws illegal immigrants to the United States. But it would not apply to children born in the US to illegal immigrants, as they automatically become US citizens.
Al Shanker, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, described the measure as a false economy. "Fairness, common sense, and cost-benefit analysis all tell us that it is wrong to deny the children of undocumented aliens a free public education."
Mr Clinton and his Republican opponents have set out to prove themselves tough on illegal immigration. As the general election season gets under way, both have cited the issue in political TV adverts.
Mr Clinton brags - accurately - that he has dramatically increased US forces patrolling the southern border with Mexico. But Republicans claim that spending on five million illegal immigrants inside the country reaches $5 billion a year .