Secretary Kemp Beats a Smart Retreat : * Pulls Back Fast on Counterproductive HUD Ruling on Immigration Funding

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp knew how to read a defense in his days as a football quarterback, and now he has made the right call on the bureaucratic playing field.

Kemp scrambled deftly out of the pocket on Monday to escape the fierce political pressure generated by his department’s insensitive response to Costa Mesa’s immigration policy. He suspended an opinion rendered by his general counsel that had managed over the weekend to offend a vast cross section of immigration groups and nonprofit organizations.

Costa Mesa had no idea it would stir such national outrage when its divided City Council last summer passed an ordinance requiring charities receiving funds to monitor the immigration status of recipients. The city fathers were so unsure of the fairness of their own decision that they actually rescinded the ordinance later on, all the while looking to Washington, the source of community development money, for clarification.

The mayor had been the swing vote when the ordinance passed and again when it was pulled back. Then came a stunning decision from HUD’s general counsel last week that a city could, in effect, turn nonprofit groups into unwilling deputies to enforce immigration policy.


Not surprisingly, immigration groups, already concerned about a recent report that found widespread discrimination by employers against immigrants, were very upset. And so the legal opinion presented political problems both for the mayor of Costa Mesa and for the secretary of HUD. The Bush Administration, after all, has been trying to cast charities as points of light, not grand inquisitors. Politically, it necessarily looks to immigrants for support as the old Republican Sunbelt strongholds shift in ethnic composition in the 1990s.

Enter Jack Kemp. He saw correctly that even if his lawyer had issued a perfectly sound legal opinion, based on HUD’s own regulations, it wasn’t necessarily good policy. The legal ruling indeed had opened an amazing Pandora’s box: Nonprofits were to be co-opted into doing the federal government’s immigration screening, immigrants were to be subjected to new discrimination. Kemp was right to retreat from the ruling and to put things on hold until they can be sorted out.

Two conclusions are inescapable. City councils shouldn’t try to transform charities into arms of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. And Washington’s opinions may follow the letter of the law and still be bad as real public policy.