New Arizona law leaves immigrants fearful of seeking government help


TUCSON, Ariz. — Cristina, an illegal immigrant living in South Tucson, recently went to a government office to sign up her children for a state-run Medicaid program.

The boy and girl, ages 7 and 3, respectively, are
U.S. citizens and entitled to the benefits. But Cristina, who spoke on
condition her last name not be used, was fearful. She’d heard of a new
state law requiring public workers to alert Immigration and Customs Enforcement when illegal immigrants apply for benefits they are not legally entitled to.

So when workers asked Cristina, 32, for
identification, she fled. She now says she has no way to treat her
daughter’s liver problems and her son’s asthma and impacted tooth.

Cristina, a part-time housecleaner and single
mother, is even reluctant to take her children to a hospital emergency
room. “I feel so alone,” she said.

The new law has terrified the immigrant community
here, leading to agonized discussions at schools, churches and
community meetings about whether it is safe to get government help in Arizona. The author of the law, state Sen. Russell Pearce, is happy about that.

“I have a hard time having compassion for criminals,” Pearce said. “It’s about time people started being afraid.”

Pearce contends a large number of illegal immigrants
improperly receive public benefits, and his law makes it a misdemeanor
for a public worker to fail to report one. The law also allows citizens
to sue public agencies if they believe immigrants are receiving
improper benefits.

“I want the law enforced,” he said. “Every time you
pass something it becomes a toothless tiger.” He acknowledged his bill
is not supposed to apply to people like Cristina’s children, who are
legally entitled to federal benefits.

The law took effect in late November, and it is not
yet clear what government services it applies to. Some fear it could
mean libraries and fire stations are obligated to report illegal
immigrants, an interpretation Pearce said is silly.

Pearce said the bill only applies to a range of welfare, Medicaid and other government aid programs that are not already guaranteed to illegal immigrants under federal law.

But many Arizonans are awaiting an opinion from the
state’s attorney general on the law’s scope and which government
workers are obligated to report illegal immigrants.

Critics of the law say it creates fear and uncertainty over a problem that doesn’t exist.

“It’s already the law in Arizona that we cannot give benefits to people who are in the country illegally,” said Ken Strobeck, executive director of the Arizona League of Cities and Towns, which unsuccessfully sued to halt the law’s implementation.

Experts on both sides of the immigration debate
agree that illegal immigrants rarely receive government benefits
illegally. Many economists have found that immigrants pay for benefits
they receive through taxes, though some studies show a net loss to

The main cost to taxpayers comes from the use of
public schools or emergency medical care — benefits guaranteed illegal
immigrants under federal law.

Also, children of illegal immigrants who are U.S.
citizens are eligible for the same benefits as those of any other
citizen, such as food stamps.

“There’s not much that Arizona can do about it,” said Steven A. Cammarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington,
which favors restrictions on immigration. “The only solution is for us
to have fewer illegals and fewer U.S.-born children” of illegal
immigrants, he added.

Cammarota estimated that families headed by illegal
immigrants receive public assistance at about the same rate as those of
native-born citizens who lack a high school education. A 2002 study by
the Urban Institute found that illegal immigrant families
used benefits at a far lower rate than native-born ones — for example,
11 percent of illegal immigrant families in Los Angeles County used food stamps, compared with 33 percent of low-income native-born ones.

Randy Capps, who worked on the Urban Institute study and is now at the Migration Policy Institute, said illegal immigrants shy away from government aid. “When you’re in an anti-immigrant, hostile environment, like in Arizona, the message is clear that you put yourself at risk with any contact with the government,” Capps said.

In 2004, Pearce, a Republican, helped write a ballot
initiative that required state workers to report illegal immigrants who
receive benefits. But Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat, interpreted the measure narrowly so the law only applied to a couple of obscure programs.

This year, as the state struggled to close its
budget deficit, Pearce inserted language in the budget bill reiterating
those requirements. Many immigrant advocates and local officials were
unaware of the move until the law took effect. Its impact was swift.

Jennifer Allen, executive director of Border Action
Network here, said the group has been swamped with calls from terrified
parents, like Cristina, fearful of seeking benefits for their U.S.
citizen children.

“It’s sent a shock wave of fear through immigrant communities,” Allen said.

The state Department of Economic Services,
which administers welfare benefits, has referred to federal authorities
more than 750 people who applied for benefits without proof of legal
residency. Officials at ICE have not said if they have taken action on
those cases, but stressed that their priorities in deportations lie
with violent criminals.

On a recent morning, a group of immigrants sat in
the modest offices of Border Action Network, sharing stories of fearful
trips to apply for benefits. Sofia Machado, an English teacher and volunteer at the group, said one of her neighbors had been deported for seeking Medicaid for her U.S.-born children.

Just as Machado finished telling the story, her cell
phone rang. The caller’s daughter was three months pregnant and had
started bleeding, but the caller feared taking her to the hospital.

Machado tried to reassure the woman that hospitals
should not be checking immigration status. “There’s a lack of
information and a panicked ignorance,” she said afterward. “Look at the
disaster these people have created.”

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