Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp on Monday suspended a ruling by HUD’s general counsel that said cities can withhold federal grant money from groups that serve illegal aliens.
Citing a concern for the “clear injustices and absurdities” that could result from the opinion, Kemp called for an urgent meeting with immigrant rights groups and officials of the city of Costa Mesa who proposed an alien-funding ban.
“This is great news, I’m elated,” said Vibiana Andrade, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center who had vowed to sue any city that tried to enforce such a policy. “I think it’s wonderful that they are putting the brakes on something that could have created a very bad precedent for any city that wants to implement restrictive policies.”
In a long-awaited ruling last week, HUD General Counsel Frank Keating said cities such as Costa Mesa can implement such a policy without violating anti-discrimination law.
The opinion sparked an outcry among immigrant rights groups and representatives of nonprofit organizations who warned that enforcement of such a policy could result in widespread discrimination against Latinos and radically alter the way nonprofit groups operate.
Keating’s ruling was based in part on HUD regulations that went into effect June 1, prohibiting aliens who apply for immigration amnesty from benefiting from a HUD Community Development Block Grant for a period of five years.
On Monday, Kemp suspended those regulations as well.
It was not immediately clear whether Kemp had seen the ruling before it was issued. But after Kemp read news accounts of the ruling, according to an aide, he became concerned about its ramifications.
“The strict interpretation of the law is that the Costa Mesa policy is legal,” said George Rodriguez, a special assistant to Kemp. “However, that does not mean that HUD endorses the policy.”
Rodriguez said Kemp specifically was concerned with the implications of “letting cities or local jurisdictions carry the ball on immigration.”
Kemp also cited the practical impact “of putting nonprofits in the role of immigration agents,” according to Rodriguez.
Kemp said he wants to meet as soon as possible with Rep. C. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), Costa Mesa city officials, representatives of immigrant rights groups and “other concerned parties” to discuss the opinion.
The Costa Mesa City Council had passed an alien-funding ban last August but voted to suspend it when federal authorities questioned whether it might violate anti-discrimination law.
After last week’s ruling, several Costa Mesa council members said they would seek to have the policy reinstituted. However, city officials said Monday they will now likely put off any decision until after conferring with HUD officials.
“It’s something we’re greatly concerned with,” said Mayor Peter Buffa. “I am going to put a call in to Secretary Kemp’s office in the morning and will make sure that myself and other city officials are available to meet with Representative Cox and anyone else that the secretary suggests, because we think this is a very important issue.”
Buffa was expected to be the swing vote on a decision to reinstitute the policy in Costa Mesa. However, after hearing of Kemp’s concerns, Buffa said that the city must move cautiously.
“We don’t particularly want to be in the position of being the first one through the door and seeing if a huge federal agency follows,” he said.
Councilman Orville Amburgey, who had originally proposed the funding policy, on Monday questioned why city officials had not been forewarned of Kemp’s announcement.
“It sounds to me like Mr. Kemp is trying to make political hay out of this issue,” Amburgey said. “We have a very severe problem in Southern California with illegal aliens. As a representative of Costa Mesa constituents I have to do whatever I can to mitigate it.
“As long as the interpretation of the policy is legal that’s all we want from them,” Amburgey continued. “It’s become a national issue and very political and I won’t tolerate it. All we want to know is if we implement this policy will HUD withhold CDBG money from us.”
Several immigrant rights advocates were heartened by Kemp’s action.
“It is very good news,” said Nativo Lopez, director of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, a Santa Ana immigrant rights group. Lopez said he received a telephone call from Kemp’s office to inform him of the new position.
“It makes us more confident that he will look with more scrutiny and sensitivity at this policy to make sure that service care providers aren’t pressed against the wall and made agents of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service,” he said.
“Quite frankly,” Lopes continued, “in previous discussions we’ve had with Secretary Kemp, he has never expressed that view. That’s why when this policy came down, we were quite shocked. We know that philosophically he doesn’t think that way. We think he’s more sensitive.”
Carlos Holguin, of the Los Angeles-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, said: “That’s good, that’s great.”
“Under the Reagan Administration we would have expected such a policy decision (such as the one last week in support of the pending Costa Mesa policy), but the Bush Administration is a little more conscious of and sensitive about these things,” he said.
Holguin also said that the Bush Administration probably is already under some pressure to show more sensitivity in its immigration policy, in light of a recent report by the General Accounting Office showing widespread discrimination by employers against immigrants or those who appear to be foreign-born. Under 1986 reforms of the federal immigration law, employers are required, under penalty of sanctions, to make sure that their workers are legal residents.
“If they allow local governments to implement similar policies (that would require social service groups to verify a client’s legal status), the outcry would be even more intense,” Holguin said. “It just doesn’t make political sense at this time.”
Norma Cantu, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s San Antonio office, agreed that the Bush Administration appears to be trying to overcome perceptions that immigrantion policy is discriminatory to some groups.
“There is much too high a rate of discrimination in implementing immigration policy,” Cantu said. “What the GAO report found is a barometer for what’s happening out in our society.
“We are very concerned with policies such as this one (as proposed in Costa Mesa) because of the discrimination they can create.”