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Costa Mesa Relents on Aid Ban for Aliens : Immigration: Council rescinds request for charities to screen for undocumented recipients. Instead, members adopt a compromise that confuses some service groups.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Acknowledging that its attempts to regulate illegal aliens had failed, the City Council has voted to rescind a controversial policy that asked charitable groups to screen clients to make sure they were legal residents.

After more than an hour’s debate that failed to produce a consensus on what role the city should play in enforcing immigration laws, the council voted 3-2 Monday to accept a compromise offered by Mayor Peter F. Buffa that essentially tosses the problem back to the federal government.

All agencies that receive federal grant money from the city will now be required to “comply with all applicable federal immigration laws.”

The original policy, passed last August, barred the city from giving federal funds to any charitable group that aided illegal aliens. Supporters said it was needed to discourage the influx of undocumented workers into the community.

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Legal authorities said the revised policy is essentially meaningless because immigration laws apply to employers, not to their clients.

“There is nothing that would require a screening procedure outside of the employer context,” said Francisco Garcia, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “The reference to immigration law is obscure and puzzling.”

While directors of many service organizations hailed the action as a retreat from what they saw as a dangerous precedent, others said they were unsure what to make of the new language and worried it may present them with other problems.

“At this point I don’t know whether it is acceptable or not,” said Shirley Cohen, director of the Feedback Foundation, which provides meals to elderly county residents and is a recipient of city funds.

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“We don’t know what all the immigration laws are or which ones apply to us. I think it’s totally unnecessary.”

Others were equally disturbed that the city did not fully abandon attempts to restrict how federal funds are used.

“They postponed any kind of real decision,” said Father Jaime Soto, Catholic vicar to Orange County’s Latino community. “There has been no real resolution which, regrettably, is indicative of the broader community’s abiding ambivalence towards immigrants.”

City officials conceded they were uncertain of the practical implications of the action.

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The new language will be included in contracts given to 35 social service agencies that received about $279,000 in federal community development block grant funds distributed by the council later in the meeting.

But the council did not propose any means of implementing the measure or of determining whether agencies were complying with federal laws.

“This basically leaves it up to the agencies themselves to determine whether they are violating federal law,” Buffa said.

He said the restrictions would shield the city from liability should any agency be found in violation of federal standards.

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However, Councilmen Orville Amburgey and Ed Glasgow, who strongly dissented, said the new policy essentially scuttled the city’s attempts to regulate illegal aliens in the community.

“As of now, the council’s previous position is of no value,” said Amburgey. “This asks for nothing more than is required right now, that they obey all laws.”

Amburgey proposed the original policy, which passed on a 3-2 vote in August. Buffa, architect of Monday’s compromise, supported the measure at the time.

The council subsequently voted to make the measure voluntary, with Buffa again providing the swing vote, when federal authorities questioned whether it might violate federal anti-discrimination rules.

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Despite repeated requests from the city, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which issues guidelines for the use of block grant money, has not made a decision on its legality.

According to the old policy, the city “will not consent to support individuals or agencies who employ, provide assistance to, house, feed, or in any other fashion, support illegal aliens.”

Amburgey argued that Costa Mesa had become a mecca for illegal aliens who take advantage of assistance programs offered in the city.

Critics warned the measure would create confusion and would be impossible to enforce. Many service organizations said that to accept the policy would mean setting up costly and unworkable screening procedures that would divert funds away from services for clients.

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Amburgey and Glasgow said Monday that Costa Mesa is within its rights demanding that agencies screen their clients. An opinion by City Atty. Thomas Kathe had found there was no clear federal standards on the issue.


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