Reaffirming his opposition to local laws that bar social services to illegal immigrants, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp said in a letter to a Costa Mesa councilman that the city risks losing federal funding if it attempts to resurrect such a policy.
In a letter mailed Friday to Councilman Orville Amburgey, who has proposed that the city require charities to screen out clients who are not legal residents, Kemp said HUD "would be prepared to withhold community development block grant money" if the city attempted to adopt the measure.
It is the first time Kemp has explicitly stated that cities would risk losing some or all of HUD-administered block grant funds for implementing policies that restrict services on the basis of residency. Kemp issued a directive forbidding such policies in June, but he did not spell out sanctions.
"The potential for discrimination against foreign-born and foreign-looking citizens by service providers unfamiliar with complex immigration laws is acute and real," Kemp wrote.
"If the Costa Mesa policy regarding illegal immigrants were to be applied across the southwestern United States, I could foresee many unjust violations of the civil and human rights of Mexican-Americans and Asian-Americans," he continued.
Amburgey said Tuesday that he had not yet seen Kemp's letter and could not comment on its content.
However, the councilman continued to insist that a policy barring social services to illegal aliens has broad support in the city and may yet be realized.
The city first attempted to enact such a policy last August, when the council voted 3 to 2 to bar public service groups and charities from receiving federal grant money unless they screened out clients who are living in the city illegally. Only medical and dental services were exempted.
The policy created a furor among immigrant-rights advocates as well as directors of charity groups, many of whom said they would rather forgo city funds than establish costly and time-consuming screening procedures.
The city had suspended the policy pending a legal ruling from HUD on the policy's constitutionality. The controversial policy looked to be back on track after HUD general council Frank Keating ruled in June that it appeared to violate no federal law.
Days later, however, Kemp stayed the legal opinion, citing concerns about its national implications and the discriminatory impact of the Costa Mesa policy. After a hastily called meeting with city officials and immigrant-rights groups in Washington, Kemp issued a directive that expressly forbade cities that receive HUD grants to impose discriminatory requirements on public service groups.
Because that directive did not spell out possible sanctions, Amburgey wrote to Kemp in July and asked him to address that issue. Friday's letter was the HUD secretary's response.
George Rodriguez, a special assistant to Kemp, said Tuesday that HUD lawyers are drafting a departmentwide regulation that would bar "discrimination on the basis of (legal status) in connection with certain emergency public services."
While the department has not stated what constitutes "emergency services," Rodriguez said they will include assistance that Costa Mesa lawmakers had targeted, such as food, clothing and emergency housing.
"We do not want to be in a situation where HUD finds itself having to decide that this one gets help, but this one doesn't," Rodriguez said. "The secretary's intent is for the regulation to be inclusive."
Amburgey, along with many residents, has argued that the city is being overrun with illegal immigrants who are attracted by the community's social services. He charges that illegal aliens have increased crime, litter and overcrowding, and maintains that the city has a right to control their influx.
However, in his letter Kemp disputed Amburgey's negative assessment of illegal immigrants.
"Notwithstanding Costa Mesa's experience, I believe both California and the nation have benefited from our open policy to immigrants from around the world," wrote Kemp, who lived for a time in Costa Mesa and still has relatives in the county. "Far from being a drain on the economy, immigrants add vitality, innovation and entrepreneurial skills which make our economy dynamic and help keep it growing."
Amburgey said Tuesday that he would support an effort to put the city's funding policy on the ballot. Some residents have said they would seek to hold a special election for a referendum on the issue, but so far no one has filed papers to mount a petition drive.