House members have embraced a measure by Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside) that denies all earthquake and flood aid, except emergency care, to illegal immigrants.
Over Democrats' objections, the House Appropriations Committee adopted the provision Thursday as part of a $5.4-billion package to provide emergency aid to disaster victims. Most of the money will go to California.
Packard, who had difficulty last year limiting benefits to illegal immigrants, will try next to write into law a governmentwide ban on all non-emergency federal aid for illegal immigrants. The effort would be similar to Proposition 187, the California initiative adopted last fall, but now stalled in court, that denies services to illegal immigrants.
The language adopted Thursday would prohibit illegal immigrants from receiving aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is handing out assistance to people recovering from the Northridge earthquake and last month's floods.
"My amendment simply restricts illegal immigrants from receiving disaster aid," Packard said. "(Californians) know that free benefits lure people to cross the border illegally."
Illegal immigrants would still be eligible for emergency medical care and shelter, as well as food and water in the first few months after a disaster.
Federal law already restricts illegal immigrants from receiving all benefits except for education and emergency medical care, but Packard said the prohibition is not enforced. He said illegal immigrants are taking in millions of dollars that should go to U.S. citizens.
Packard placed a limitation in last year's package to aid victims of the Northridge earthquake. As a result, applicants for FEMA money do not have to state their citizenship status in the first 90 days after a disaster hits. Beyond that time, applicants must sign forms pledging that they are legal U.S. citizens or residents and face fines or imprisonment for lying.
FEMA is currently reviewing random applications to investigate whether applicants have been truthful, said agency spokesman Phil Cogan. About one-quarter of the 7,818 applications received will be examined, and the results are expected to be available in two to three months, he added.
Packard, a member of the exclusive appropriations panel, lost other attempts last year to apply the same standard to all federal programs.
Democrats, led by Latino members of Congress, said the restriction was unnecessary and would prompt harassment of all people of foreign descent who seek help.
"If they start just accusing people of being undocumented, they could wrongly exclude someone when they deserve benefits," said an aide to Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.), who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Cogan said the FEMA process is fair.
"The audits of applications are randomly selected," Cogan said. "We're making sure no one is discriminated against."