California's Latest Weapon Against Illegal Aliens: US Welfare Reform

Expectant mothers may be first to experience cutoff of services

Expectant mothers at a health clinic here - intently watching a video on how to care for newborns - are among those likely to feel the first effects of America's sweeping welfare-reform law.

Across the state of California, women come to publicly funded programs like this one for prenatal care. About 70,000 are illegal immigrants - and they are also the most immediate target of this week's order by Gov. Pete Wilson (R) calling upon California agencies to rapidly implement federal welfare reforms that end benefits to illegals.

Next week, Governor Wilson's office will send out letters to county governments and health-care agencies, instructing them to terminate prenatal care to women who are in the state illegally, says spokesman Sean Walsh. Wilson's order also asks state agencies to determine what other programs will be subject to similar cutoffs to illegal immigrants, including long-term nursing care and protective services for children in abusive households.

Wilson defends these moves as a vindication of his fight to implement a 1994 ballot initiative to deny state-funded services to illegal aliens. While the federal welfare law does not follow the state's Proposition 187 in every aspect - it does not bar public education for children of illegal immigrants, for example - it does make it against the law for federal, state, or local governments to provide certain services to illegals.

"The question is not whether prenatal care is beneficial," Wilson told reporters this week. "The question is whether or not the United States will discard its immigration laws, throw open its borders, and simply say we will take all comers, whether they are citizens or not."

Critics of the governor's decision say he is being too hasty. His order, they say, comes before the federal government has even had an opportunity to determine which welfare programs are affected and to create a means to verify the immigration status of people using those services.

"It is a very ambiguous executive order that appears to have been issued for political reasons to pander to anti-immigrant forces," says Peter Schey of the Los Angeles-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law. Mr. Schey is a lead attorney in an action that won a federal injunction against implementation of Proposition 187 last November.

Opponents suggest the effect of Wilson's order may be to increase the danger of the spread of disease and to saddle the state with far more costly postnatal care. "It's really a public-health disaster and a fiscal disaster as well," says Mark Silverman, an attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco.

"It'll be a shame because this is a preventive program," says Carmen Wintergerst, who helps run the pre- and postnatal care program at the Fair Oaks Community Center here, where posters on the walls promote the virtues of breastfeeding and instruct expectant mothers on prudent nutrition.

UNDER the US welfare-reform law, certain services are exempt from the cutoff. Illegal immigrants may continue receiving emergency medical assistance, as well as immunization, testing, and treatment for communicable diseases.

But many experts worry that illegal immigrants will not understand this distinction and will not seek treatment, posing a potential public-health hazard to entire communities.

Indeed, even state officials admit they are still trying to understand the intricacies of the 800-page welfare law. It is not clear, for example, whether the prenatal care provided by the federally funded Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which includes the Redwood City clinic, is covered, says Lisa Kalustian, spokeswoman for the state's Health and Welfare Agency.

State authorities also must establish procedures to screen applicants for these services to determine whether they are in the country legally or not.

The welfare reform law, too, is likely to face constitutional challenges. It allows states to provide benefits to illegal immigrants only by enacting a state law after the federal law goes into effect. But opponents argue this is a violation of the 10th Amendment guaranteeing states' rights.

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