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Illegal immigrant youths in a benefits twilight zone

Times Staff Writer

They can attend public schools through high school but often can’t get the financial aid needed for college.

They can get emergency medical treatment but often can’t get the preventive care to keep minor health issues from becoming full-blown problems.

And, under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent proposals, undocumented immigrant children would be given unprecedented access to healthcare but would lose long-term welfare benefits.

Such children often face a confusing thicket of public policies reflecting sympathy for their vulnerability and disapproval of their parents’ illegal behavior.

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“Illegal alien children are here through no fault of their own,” said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank based in Washington. “On the other hand, kids suffer all the time from the bad decisions of their parents. These two opposing views highlight the ambiguity many people feel about the issue.”

State officials say the governor’s health and welfare proposals are not meant to be contradictory, nor are they aimed at immigration control. They merely end welfare benefits after five years for children, documented or not, with ineligible parents. But immigrant activists argue that the governor’s proposals are counterproductive.

“Assistance to uninsured children and families would be offered under the universal health plan, but the same group ... would also be left without financial assistance to cover other basic necessities, such as food or housing,” said Angela Sanbrano, executive director of the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles. Even immigration opponents say it’s tricky to target children.

“You want to help children, no matter who they are and where they come from,” said Caroline Espinosa, spokeswoman for NumbersUSA, a Virginia-based immigration control group. “But doing so does encourage and reward illegal behavior and takes resources away from our own poor and needy citizens.”

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“It’s a tough position to take, though,” Espinosa added.

Arguments over aid to undocumented children have raged for more than three decades.

Landmark ruling

In a landmark 1982 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a 1975 Texas law denying free public education to undocumented school-age children. The court, noting the primacy of public education in conveying national values, said that children are innocent victims of their parents’ decisions, are subject to equal-protection laws and can be barred from school only to further a “substantial state interest.” Texas had not sufficiently done so, the court ruled in the 5-4 decision.

“It is difficult to understand precisely what [Texas] hopes to achieve by promoting the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare and crime,” Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote for the court.

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, argues that the costs of educating undocumented children have grown since then, particularly in California. In a 2004 study, the Washington-based immigration control group argued that the state spent $7.7 billion educating the children of undocumented immigrants, money, the authors say, that could have been used to buy 2.8 million computers, to hire 31,000 teachers and to reduce class size.

Proposition 187

In 1994, California voters eliminated free public education and other benefits to illegal immigrants by passing Proposition 187. A federal judge ruled the measure unconstitutional, but former state Sen. Richard Mountjoy, a Republican, and others are gathering signatures for a similar initiative that would deny public aid and other benefits to illegal immigrants.

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Currently, the educational field’s biggest battles are over whether to grant undocumented college students access to in-state college fees.

California and nine other states allow it, but such provisions have been rejected or vetoed in other states.

Mountjoy’s proposed initiative would eliminate that benefit.

Mehlman said that undocumented students take the spots of legal residents.

In a 2005 report, the Federation for American Immigration Reform estimated that the in-state fee discounts potentially cost California as much as $290 million annually.

But Paul Steenhausen, a higher education expert with the nonpartisan state legislative analyst’s office in Sacramento, cautioned that hard data on the costs of providing in-state fees to undocumented immigrants don’t exist.

Healthcare has been another area of major skirmishing, and the proposed coverage for illegal immigrants is considered a potential deal-breaker for Schwarzenegger’s ambitious plan.

Undocumented children, like all illegal immigrants, now are given emergency medical care, but efforts to extend broader health benefits to them were rejected twice last year in California. Voters rejected Proposition 86, which would have increased the tobacco tax to expand healthcare programs for low-income undocumented children and others, and the Legislature also failed to pass a healthcare proposal to cover illegal immigrant children.

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“Everybody agrees that it would be wonderful if everyone had the best healthcare possible,” Mehlman said. “But we live in a world of finite resources, and it seems legitimate to make distinctions based on whether people obey the law.”

Schwarzenegger’s proposal to extend medical care to all children regardless of legal status has won widespread praise, however, from health advocates.

Howard Kahn, chief executive of L.A. Care Health Plan, said surveys by United Way and other organizations consistently show broad and bipartisan support for universal healthcare for children.

Treating children before minor problems become emergencies is both cheaper and safer for their classmates’ health, he said.

“These kids are here. They’re in our schools. Let’s make sure they’re as healthy as possible,” said Kahn, whose organization helps deliver healthcare to 40,000 Los Angeles-area children in the privately funded Healthy Kids program.

The public’s softer attitude toward children is one reason that many immigrant advocates believe that a proposal to legalize some undocumented students may have the best shot at passage of all the immigration legislation pending in Congress.

The proposal, known as the DREAM Act, would give legal status to most high school graduates and college-bound students “with good moral character” who have been in the United States for at least five years and arrived in the country at age 15 or younger.

The proposal has won bipartisan support, although immigrant advocates say it can pass only as part of a comprehensive bill that includes border security and other enforcement measures.

“The most hardened adults recognize that children are caught in the crossfires of immigration wars, and that’s not a good thing,” said Josh Bernstein, director of federal policy for the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center, one of the measure’s leading proponents.

Krikorian, of the Center for Immigration Studies, agreed to a point. “Even though I oppose [the DREAM Act], politically speaking, it would be a lot less likely to blow up in people’s faces” than a broad amnesty or other benefits, he said. “They’ll be able to say that this is for the children.”

A family’s story

For children like Thania Gomez, a 16-year-old from Los Angeles, passage of the measure would be a godsend. Last year, she said, she attended a scholarship fair in Los Angeles -- only to be turned away because the aid was limited to legal residents.

“Everyone was getting a chance and I wasn’t,” said Thania, whose mother smuggled her over the border as an infant.

Her 20-year-old brother, Cesar, won acceptance to UC Berkeley two years ago. But he was ineligible for public financial aid and had to turn down the offer.

During a recent visit to the Gomezes’ tidy Los Angeles apartment, all four family members spoke of the importance of hard work and education. Cesar and Thania’s father, Felipe Gomez, who came here illegally in 1990, said his main motivation was to give his two children opportunities.

Indeed, Gomez said, he wouldn’t have brought his children here if they could not have attended public schools.

All four family members work -- doing baby-sitting, housecleaning, sewing, office work, odd jobs -- and pool their money in the hopes of sending Cesar to Cal State San Bernardino to study industrial psychology.

Cesar Gomez works full time, volunteers with the Central American Resource Center and last year marched for immigrant rights.

“Whatever sentiments people have toward immigrants,” Cesar said, “everyone is human and deserves equal rights and equal opportunities -- especially in this great country, especially those who have tried so hard to stay ahead.”

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com


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