Welfare Law Will Allow Wilson to Cut Immigrant Aid

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A federal judge ruled Friday that California can use the nation's new welfare law to implement cuts in aid to illegal immigrants that she had banned in a 1994 order against Proposition 187.

In a nine-page ruling, Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer in Los Angeles said that her 1994 injunction does not stop Gov. Pete Wilson from using provisions of the new federal welfare law to cut prenatal care for about 70,000 pregnant women who are undocumented immigrants.

And lawyers on both sides say her ruling could have far broader consequences. It could open the way, they said, for Sacramento to block illegal immigrants from dozens of state-funded programs, from cancer-screening efforts to post-secondary education to issuing state licenses and grants. The federal welfare law largely bans illegal immigrants from such programs, even if the efforts are exclusively funded by state or local monies.

"The court's injunction does not prohibit the implementation of any federal law," Judge Pfaelzer said. "Congress has decided that the states should deny health benefits to illegal aliens."

The judge acted after immigrant advocates went to court seeking to block Gov. Wilson's plan to make illegal immigrants ineligible for prenatal care. Critics called the plan a subterfuge designed to circumvent the judge's injunction against Proposition 187, the hotly contested 1994 measure targeting benefits for illegal immigrants. The governor maintained that he was merely carrying out mandates of the new federal welfare statute.

The injunction, the judge noted, was based on her finding that much of Proposition 187 amounted to an unconstitutional usurpation of federal authority in immigration law. But now, she said, it is Congress directing the states to deny benefits to illegal immigrants.

Afterward, the Wilson administration was jubilant, viewing the ruling as clearing the path for a whole new series of bans affecting illegal immigrants.

"It is our belief that the state will now be able to implement a majority of the federal welfare bill," said Sean Walsh, spokesman for Gov. Wilson. "And it is also our hope that this will help convince the court that Proposition 187 should be implemented and the will of the people of California should be heard."

In fact, Judge Pfaelzer did nothing to weaken her injunction against Proposition 187, which differs from the federal welfare law in many key respects. The contested ballot initiative contains many requirements--such as those banning undocumented youngsters from public schools and requiring police to interrogate "suspected" illegal immigrants--that are not part of the welfare law and remain enjoined.

The federal welfare overhaul, signed into law by President Clinton on Aug. 22, says that state and local governments may only continue most aid to illegal immigrants if states pass new laws specifically authorizing such assistance. Although the new federal law is unambiguous, the presence of the injunction against Proposition 187 in California had presented a formidable obstacle to Gov. Wilson's ambitious plans to implement the newly mandated federal bans.

The federal welfare cutbacks targeting illegal immigrants, inspired in part by Proposition 187, will now have the practical effect of allowing a major thrust of the initiative to become a reality, even as the state measure remains largely blocked.

Immigrant advocates were disappointed, said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

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He predicted other legal assaults, including a possible challenge of the ban on pregnancy aid under constitutional guarantees of equal protection. "Denying prenatal care to citizen children is an open question that could be litigated," he said.

The judge's ruling came hours after Gov. Wilson, renewing his drive to cut state benefits for illegal immigrants, proposed emergency regulations to deny prenatal services to an estimated 70,000 pregnant women each year who are undocumented immigrants.

Widely criticized by health care advocates, the governor's action signals the end of a program mandated by the Legislature in 1988 that has provided pregnancy checkups and other care for poor expectant mothers who are illegal immigrants. The proposed regulations will become effective Dec. 1.

Under the 1988 law signed by Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, California has been subsidizing prenatal services for illegal immigrants--care long banned under federal Medicaid guidelines. The state program cost about $69 million last year, according to Gov. Wilson's office.

Health professionals credit prenatal care--a regimen including regular checkups, nutrition supplements, counseling and fetal monitoring--with reducing mortality and illness rates for children and mothers and averting abnormalities and serious complications such as low birth weight babies.

"We consider this to be extremely shortsighted public policy," said Charlotte Newhart, chief administrative officer of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, California.

The aid cutoff is expected to hit hardest in Los Angeles County, home of the nation's largest concentration of illegal immigrants. County hospitals and clinics now provide prenatal care to about 20,000 illegal immigrants, officials say. County taxpayers will be left with the $9-million cost.

Wilson has never disputed the preventive value of prenatal care, but has argued that it serves to lure illegal immigrants into the country, causing a drain on the state treasury. Opponents say it is absurd to call such aid a lure.

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