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Discontent over illegals in Arizona

Prop. 200 on the state's ballot proposes limiting public benefits for the undocumented.

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To be sure, the federal government has tried to stem the flow of illegal immigrants coming across the border with high-profile crackdowns in places like San Diego and southern Texas. Now the front-line battle is shifting to Arizona, where the border remains porous.

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The concern over illegal immigration has intensified as the federal government has shifted more of the cost and control of welfare benefits to the states - further burdening state budgets. "Other states will be looking at whether this [Prop. 200] is a failure or a success so they can model theirs after what Arizona is doing," says Shirley Gunther, an analyst for ThinkAZ, an Arizona public policy group.

As in immigration policy battles of the past, propaganda wars are already afoot, delineating the costs and advantages that immigrants bring to the economy. Some anti-immigrant groups say they siphon more than $1 billion a year in social services from the Arizona treasury - $700 per family in the state. "Arizona has a serious problem on its hands in paying $1.3 billion a year in services to illegals," says Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which helped gather signatures to qualify the initiative. "All [the state is] trying to do is provide a check to see if people are eligible to receive the benefits they are applying for."

But ASU's Merrill and other analysts question the $1.3 billion figure. "No research or statistics are available to make that claim," he says.

And there is the usual battle over what the proposition actually says and does, as well as the motives of supporters and detractors. Backers say passage will help the state by preventing illegal immigrants from receiving benefits they don't qualify for. They also say a separate provision of Prop. 200 will prevent voter fraud by keeping illegals from registering to vote.

Critics say Prop. 200 will do nothing to prevent illegals from crossing the border, but will only make it harder for citizens to vote. They also say it will be costly to implement, by requiring the processing of documentation (driver's license, passport, birth certificate) by registered voters.

Analysts at ThinkAZ say both sides are taking advantage of the measure's complexity to confuse voters. They also say the measure is written in such a way as to keep some key points vague. "Prop. 200 does not include a definition of the public benefits which it says are covered by the new law," says Ms. Gunther - an omission she says could require the intervention of either the state legislature or the courts if approved. She also says the measure does not remove federally mandated public benefits for illegals such as emergency healthcare, immunizations, and K-12 public education.

"They are trying to scare us into leaving the country," says Leonardo Flores, a 19-year-old in line at the labor center. "It's a cheap tactic to fool the very people who are doing the work of this state that others don't want to do."