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 Costa Mesa officials who had originally 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 can implement such a policy without violating anti-discrimination laws.
The opinion sparked an outcry among immigrant-rights groups and representatives of other nonprofit rights organizations who warned that enforcement of such a policy could result in widespread discrimination against Latinos and radically alter the way the 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 at least five years.
On Monday, Kemp suspended those regulations as well.
It was not immediately clear if Kemp had seen the ruling before it was issued. But after Kemp read news accounts, 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 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, immigrant rights groups and “other concerned parties” to discuss the opinion and its possible impact.
“The waffling by HUD on this measure is indicative of the political ambivalence towards immigrants,” said Father Jaime Soto, Hispanic vicar for the Diocese of Orange.
“I’m hopeful that in HUD’s reconsideration of this policy, they will find the political will to see beyond the anxious confusion that oftentimes predominates this debate,” he said. “I hope they see the clear social interests in serving the residents of a community without distinction.”
The Costa Mesa City Council had passed an alien-funding ban last August but subsequently voted to suspend it when federal authorities questioned whether it might violate anti-discrimination laws.
The policy stated that 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.” The sole programs exempted were medical and dental services.
After Thursday’s ruling, several Costa Mesa council members said they would seek to have the policy reinstituted. However, city officials said Monday that they will now likely put off any decision until after conferring with HUD officials.
“It’s something we’re greatly concerned with,” Mayor Peter F. Buffa said. “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 Rep. Cox (who sought the HUD opinion on behalf of the city) and anyone else that the secretary suggests because we think this is a very important issue.”
It was expected that Buffa would be the swing vote on a decision to reinstitute the policy in Costa Mesa. The mayor previously voted to adopt the policy but then voted to suspend it pending HUD’s ruling. However, after hearing of Kemp’s concerns, Buffa said 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. 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 (Community Development Block Grant) money from us.”
But several immigrant rights advocates were heartened by Kemp’s change in policy.
“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,” Lopez said.
“Quite frankly,” he 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 exclaimed: “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 Adminstration is a little more conscious of and sensitive about these things,” he said.
Holguin suggested that the Bush Administration is probably already under some pressure to show more sensitivity in its immigration policy in light of a recent report by the General Accounting Office of widespread discrimination by employers against immigrants or those who appear to be foreign-born. Under 1986 reforms of the federal immigration law, employers are now 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 immigration 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,” she said.
In a 1982 case pressed by attorneys for MALDEF, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that immigrants, regardless of their legal status, cannot be barred from attending public schools. The immigrant-rights group last week indicated that it would also keep a close eye on the Costa Mesa policy.