Gov. Gray Davis has quietly ended California's efforts to deny pregnancy care for tens of thousands of illegal immigrants--a battle that became a hallmark of the administration of former Gov. Pete Wilson and a symbol of the state's hardball immigration politics earlier this decade.
Deep in a budget bill signed by the new governor late last week is a provision authorizing a state-funded prenatal care program for undocumented women. The move effectively preserves the 11-year-old aid program that was targeted by Wilson for extinction.
With Davis' signature, California joins a handful of states that have passed laws specifically authorizing public aid for illegal immigrants. The 1996 federal welfare overhaul mandated that any state seeking to provide nonemergency public assistance to illegal immigrants pass such laws.
The current state budget authorizes $63 million in state prenatal aid for about 70,000 women as part of Medi-Cal, the combined federal and state health insurance plan for the poor.
Previous court injunctions have allowed illegal immigrants to continue receiving state prenatal aid in California. But health advocates say the acrimonious debate has caused many immigrants to refrain from seeking such essential care, which includes physical examinations, diet supplements and screening for disease.
Health care activists and pro-immigrant organizations labeled Davis' action on prenatal care a milestone.
"This is a tremendous victory for all Californians," said John Affeldt, an attorney with Public Advocates in San Francisco. "When all low-income residents receive prenatal care, lives are saved, communicable diseases are screened, and Medi-Cal costs are greatly reduced."
However, those seeking to reduce immigration levels view Davis' action as encouraging illegal immigration and violating the spirit of Proposition 187, which would have barred illegal immigrants from receiving most public services.
"This is clearly not what the people of California wanted and voted for," said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group favoring sharply curtailed immigration.
Proposition 187, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters, has not been implemented because a federal judge found most of its provisions unconstitutional.
Former Gov. Wilson, who championed Proposition 187 in his successful reelection campaign, argued that prenatal care and other free aid served as a magnet for pregnant women to cross the border illegally into California. On two occasions, Wilson vetoed prenatal bills similar to the one that Davis signed into law last week.
Throughout the debate, hospital administrators and other health care professionals have said that denying prenatal care is a shortsighted policy that poses severe health risks while resulting in increased public costs for emergency-room aid and other treatment.
The Davis administration, which has navigated a cautious middle ground on immigration issues, has downplayed the new governor's differences with Wilson.
Michael Bustamante, spokesman for Davis, said, however, that making illegal immigrants ineligible for prenatal care "was both penny-wise and pound-foolish."
Those hurt most by restricting prenatal care, health advocates said, would be U.S.-born children--who are automatically citizens, regardless of the status of their parents.
Gov. Davis inherited two court cases from the Wilson's administration's attempt to bar illegal immigrants from receiving the prenatal care. The new law will lead to the dismissal of the cases, lawyers agreed, removing any barriers for the aid.
Along with the prenatal care law, Gov. Davis signed a new statute that puts a cap on the amount of aid provided for illegal immigrants in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
The state spends about $14 million annually in such long-term care for about 300 undocumented people, all aged or disabled, according to government estimates. The new law allows the number of patients to grow by no more than 10%.