Aid flows to illegal immigrants

In a controversial move, states make it easier for families to get everything from drivers' licenses to healthcare.

Seven years after Californians voted to sharply curtail public benefits to illegal immigrants, a growing number of states are moving to offer more services to those living illegally in this country - sometimes even in defiance of federal rules.

Faced with burgeoning populations of undocumented people, many big Southern states in particular are changing strictures governing access to everything from healthcare to drivers' licenses.

The moves come at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment still runs deep in many parts of the country, and the Republican Party is sharply divided over the possibility that President Bush might liberalize US policy toward illegal immigrants from Mexico.

In just the past few months:

* Texas became the first state to allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition instead of the international tuition usually required. California and Minnesota, among others, are considering similar bills.

* Tennessee and Utah removed the need to have a Social Security number to get a driver's license - something that has long been an impediment to illegal immigrants seeking to drive.

* Arizona is struggling with the federal government to continue providing nonemergency healthcare to illegal immigrants who need special treatments, such as dialysis, something they have been doing for years with state funds.

Overall, "there is a growing movement of support for providing services to undocumented immigrants," says Tatcho Mindiola, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Houston. "People are beginning to recognize the important role they play in society."

Not every state, of course, is suddenly turning completely benevolent. In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry (R) recently vetoed legislation that would have allowed illegal immigrants in the state to obtain drivers' licenses. He said existing laws already provide ways for foreign nationals to do so.

Other states are trying to provide certain benefits to undocumented immigrants, but are being stymied by the federal government - particularly in the area of healthcare.

Help now or get hit later

Arizona's healthcare fight is one of the most visible examples. Voters there passed a proposition to expand healthcare insurance to the working poor.

But to receive financial help from the federal government, the state had to make some concessions - one of which was to stop funding nonemergency care to those who are undocumented.

At present, Washington provides money for those who are illegal only for emergency-room visits. So, come Oct. 1, some 200 Arizona immigrants getting chemotherapy and other such treatments will be on their own.

"We see those services as an outgrowth of emergency care," says Frank Lopez, a spokesman with the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System. "If we don't provide those services, these patients will be back in the emergency room until we can stabilize them again. It's kind of like a revolving door."

Some localities trying to expand healthcare services to illegals are running into other problems. Last week, Texas Attorney General John Cornyn found that the Harris County Hospital District, based in Houston, was violating federal law by providing preventive care to undocumented immigrants. It was told to stop providing such care - something it hasn't yet done.

"The need to uphold the law and the need to provide good healthcare - both are valid and legitimate needs," says John Guest, the hospital district's president. "But in this case, they are not on the same path."

Following different playbooks

Many states and localities, in fact, feel like they're "not on the same path" with the federal government when it comes to the care of illegal immigrants. When it overhauled immigration policy in 1996, Congress bowed out of funding many benefits for immigrants and left it up to states to decide whether they would cover the cost for those benefits.

That worried states with large immigrant populations, such as California, Texas, and New York.

"States have to do something," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. "They have been left holding the bag because of the failure of the federal government to stop immigration."

Those who oppose providing benefits to the undocumented have long argued that these services simply encourage more illegal immigration.

But in a study published last year, Project Hope, a healthcare advocacy group, found that - out of 800 illegal immigrants polled in California and Texas - fewer than 1 percent said they came to the United States for the social services.

Most said they came to work or to be reunited with family. In addition, 37 percent reported visiting a doctor in the past year, compared with 75 percent in the overall US population.

"We found that healthcare was not a drawing factor," says Marc Berk with Project Hope in Bethesda, Md. "Even the most restrictive rules would not have any effect on immigration."

The debate over how benevolent the US should be toward illegal immigrants is about to intensify even more. Mr. Bush is considering asking Congress to grant amnesty to millions of undocumented Mexicans currently in the United States and to significantly expand the guest worker program.

But opposition is mounting within GOP ranks.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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