Immigration law ignites fear in Arizona

Cristina, an illegal immigrant living in South Tucson, recently went to a government office to sign up her children for a state-run Medicaid program.

The boy and girl, ages 7 and 3, respectively, are U.S. citizens and entitled to the benefits. But Cristina, who spoke on condition her last name not be used, was fearful. She’d heard of a new state law requiring public workers to alert Immigration and Customs Enforcement when illegal immigrants apply for benefits they are not legally entitled to.

So when workers asked Cristina, 32, for identification, she fled. She now says she has no way to treat her daughter’s liver problems or her son’s asthma and impacted tooth.

Cristina, a single mother and part-time house cleaner, is even reluctant to take her children to a hospital emergency room. “I feel so alone,” she said.


The new law has terrified the immigrant community here, leading to agonized discussions at schools, churches and community meetings about whether it is safe to get government help in Arizona. The author of the law, state Sen. Russell Pearce, is happy about that.

“I have a hard time having compassion for criminals,” Pearce said. “It’s about time people started being afraid.”

Pearce contends that a large number of illegal immigrants improperly receive public benefits, and his law makes it a misdemeanor for a public worker to fail to report one. The law also allows citizens to sue public agencies if they believe immigrants are receiving improper benefits.

“I want the law enforced,” he said. “Every time you pass something it becomes a toothless tiger.” He acknowledged that his bill is not supposed to apply to people like Cristina’s children, who are legally entitled to federal benefits.


The law took effect in late November, and it is not yet clear what government services it applies to. Some fear it could mean libraries and fire stations are obligated to report illegal immigrants, an interpretation Pearce said is silly.

He said the bill applies only to a range of welfare, Medicaid and other government aid programs that are not already guaranteed to illegal immigrants under federal law.

But many Arizonans are awaiting an opinion from the state’s attorney general on the law’s scope and which government workers are obligated to report illegal immigrants.

Critics of the law say it creates fear and uncertainty over a problem that doesn’t exist.


“It’s already the law in Arizona that we cannot give benefits to people who are in the country illegally,” said Ken Strobeck, executive director of the Arizona League of Cities and Towns, which unsuccessfully sued to halt the law’s implementation.

Experts on both sides of the immigration debate agree that illegal immigrants rarely receive government benefits illegally. Many economists have found that immigrants pay for benefits they receive through taxes, though some studies show a net loss to government.

The main cost to taxpayers comes from the use of public schools or emergency medical care -- benefits guaranteed illegal immigrants under federal law.

Also, children of illegal immigrants who are U.S. citizens are eligible for the same benefits as those of any other citizen, such as food stamps.


“There’s not much that Arizona can do about it,” said Steven A. Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which favors restrictions on immigration. “The only solution is for us to have fewer illegals and fewer U.S.-born children” of illegal immigrants, he added.

Camarota estimated that families headed by illegal immigrants receive public assistance at about the same rate as families of native-born citizens who lack a high school education. A 2002 study by the Urban Institute found that illegal-immigrant families used benefits at a far lower rate than native-born ones -- for example, 11% of illegal-immigrant families in Los Angeles County used food stamps, compared with 33% of low-income native-born ones.

Randy Capps, who worked on the Urban Institute study and is now at the Migration Policy Institute, said illegal immigrants shy away from government aid. “When you’re in an anti-immigrant, hostile environment, like in Arizona, the message is clear that you put yourself at risk with any contact with the government,” Capps said.

In 2004, Pearce, a Republican, helped write a ballot initiative that required state workers to report illegal immigrants who receive benefits. But Arizona Atty. Gen. Terry Goddard, a Democrat, interpreted the measure narrowly so the law applied to only a couple of obscure programs.


This year, as the state struggled to address its budget deficit, Pearce inserted language in the budget bill reiterating those requirements. Many immigrant advocates and local officials were unaware of the move until the law took effect. Its impact was swift.

Jennifer Allen, executive director of the Border Action Network here, said the group has been swamped with calls from terrified parents, like Cristina, fearful of seeking benefits for their U.S. citizen children.

“It’s sent a shock wave of fear through immigrant communities,” Allen said.

The state Department of Economic Services, which administers welfare benefits, has referred to federal authorities more than 750 people who applied for benefits without proof of legal residency. Officials at ICE have not said whether they have taken action on those cases, but stressed that their priorities in deportations lie with violent criminals.


On a recent morning, a group of immigrants sat in the modest offices of the Border Action Network, sharing stories of fearful trips to apply for benefits. Sofia Machado, an English teacher and volunteer at the group, said one of her neighbors had been deported after seeking Medicaid for her U.S.-born children.

Just as Machado finished telling the story, her cellphone rang. The caller’s daughter was three months pregnant and had started bleeding, but the caller feared taking her to the hospital. Machado tried to reassure the caller that hospitals should not be checking immigration status.

“There’s a lack of information and a panicked ignorance,” she said afterward. “Look at the disaster these people have created.”