Serving newly-legal aliens will be costly for localities. Federal funds will help, but no one knows scope of problem
As part of the immigration-reform bill that President Reagan signed this month, the federal government is promising to help states and communities pay for the social services that hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens are expected to qualify for as they become legal residents. The immigration law earmarks $1 billion over each of the next four years to help pay the public assistance, health, and education costs of what some estimates put at more than a million new legal residents.Skip to next paragraph
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That is good news for the cities and counties that for years have paid, with little federal help, to treat the emergencies, deliver the babies, and educate the children of undocumented aliens.
But across the country, and especially in areas where large numbers of illegal aliens are now concentrated, local officials are uncertain whether the federal dollars will be enough, and are skeptical about just how much of the money will ever reach local coffers.
They note that states and the federal government itself will take their share of the money first. And they doubt that the reform will greatly curtail illegal immigration - thus leaving them open to continued pressure on their services.
``If nothing more, I'd call the money the beginning of the recognition process about the costs and pressures we're facing down here,'' says Pat O'Rourke, the county judge (chief administrator) in El Paso County, Texas. ``It won't solve our problem, but it's a start.''
Much of the uncertainty over how far the federal money will go stems from the fact that no one knows how many aliens will qualify - or apply - for legal status.
``No one knows, and you'll hear the same thing all across the country,'' says Nancy Wittenberg, refugee-program administrator for Florida. ``Even our guesses wouldn't be very good.''
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has ventured a guess that 1.4 million illegal aliens, plus 250,000 agricultural workers, will qualify for the new law's amnesty from deportation.
Simply put, any illegal alien who has lived here continuously since before Jan. 1, 1982, or any agriculture worker who worked at least 90 days between May 1985 and May 1986, will qualify for temporary resident status.
The CBO also believes that the $4 billion to be laid out over the next four fiscal years will be sufficient to cover state and local governments' social-service costs, even after the federal government skims off about $1 billion to pay for food stamps, social security insurance, and certain medicaid costs for the newly legal residents.
But immigration experts and local officials maintain that such figures can be only guesses, since no one knows how many undocumented aliens, accustomed to hiding their status, will apply for legal residency.
``A lot of people just won't qualify, and many others won't risk coming forward only to be told they don't meet the criteria,'' says Leo Chavez, a research associate with the Center for US-Mexico Studies at the University of California at San Diego.
Florida's undocumented population did not grow significantly until 1984, according to Ms. Wittenberg, so it would appear that the state may not see much of the federal money.