Governors Press for Relief On Costs for Illegal Aliens

States are threatening legal action against the federal government

GOVERNORS from high-immigration states will meet with officials of the Clinton administration today to press for financial assistance. If they don't get it, they may sue.

The meeting will be hosted by Leon Panetta, director of the Office of Management and Budget. Attorney General Janet Reno and Donna Shalala, the secretary of health and human services, will also attend.

The governors are California's Pete Wilson (R), Florida's Lawton Chiles (D), Illinois's Jim Edgar (R), New York's Mario Cuomo (D), and Texas' Ann Richards (D). Their states are home to 80 percent of new immigrants to the United States, legal and illegal.

Services for illegal aliens cost California $1.8 billion a year and New York $970 million. Florida spends $740 million annually on illegal aliens and refugees. Texas spends $166 million each year on the estimated 550,000 illegal aliens making up 3 percent of the state's population.

``It's not as big a problem in Texas. Nevertheless, we do have a problem,'' says Leticia Vasquez, a spokeswoman for Governor Richards. ``We see it in schools, public hospitals, corrections, higher education, AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the largest component of welfare].''

In California, the fastest-growing AFDC caseload involves illegal aliens with US-born children. The children automatically have US citizenship, entitling their parents to collect welfare, says Frank Bean, a sociologist at the University of Texas.

There are an estimated 3 million to 4 million illegal aliens in the US. ``It's a front-burner issue for the whole country,'' Ms. Vasquez adds. A Democratic candidate in Texas for the US Senate recently proposed deploying the National Guard along the border to help control entry.

All immigrants pay almost as much in taxes as they use in services, Dr. Bean says. But three-quarters of the taxes that immigrants pay go to the federal government. Three quarters of the services they use are paid for by the states.

``That's where the rub is, rather than immigrants being freeloaders off the system,'' he says. ``The dollars are about the same. But they get distributed very unevenly.''

A different perspective is offered by Sidney Weintraub, a political economist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. After examining the cost and benefits of illegal aliens to Texas, Mr. Weintraub concluded that the state as a whole gets as much in tax revenues from illegal aliens as it spends in services. But Texas fails to distribute the income back to the cities most impacted by illegal aliens.

``The state maybe had a complaint against Washington, but the bigger complaint is localities against the state,'' Weintraub says.

Today's meeting comes one year to the day after the governors charged in a letter to President Clinton that ``the federal government has failed to honor its commitment'' to pay its share.

That letter noted that the federal government alone sets and enforces immigration policy. Washington has also mandated that states provide both legal and illegal immigrants with education, medical care, and other services.

``States cannot be expected to pay the costs of policies which are fundamentally the responsibility of the federal government,'' the governors wrote. They asked Mr. Clinton for ``immediate action to provide all reimbursement owed to the states.''

Nothing happened.

Governors Chiles and Richards have asked their attorneys general ``to investigate all possible legal actions against the federal government.''

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