AMERICA'S largest states, led by California and Florida, are up in arms over the soaring costs of illegal immigration.
Stung by billion-dollar welfare expenses for illegal residents, big-state governors are demanding that Washington start picking up the tab. Governors argue that it is Washington's job to protect the borders; and if Washington fails, Washington should pay all the costs.
The four most populous states - California, New York, Texas, and Florida - this week brought their case to the White House. They were joined by officials from other key states, including Illinois, New Jersey, and Arizona.
The governors' plight is politically explosive for both President Clinton and the governors:
* Washington requires states to provide free medical, educational, welfare, and other programs for undocumented immigrants.
* Governors and legislatures are forced to cut back programs for American citizens and legal residents to pay for the programs for illegal aliens.
``That's just an intolerable situation,'' says Gov. Pete Wilson (R) of California. ``It has reached the point where it is actually causing us to deny services to legal residents.''
Gov. Jim Edgar (R) of Illinois says if Washington won't pay the bills, at least it can remove the federal mandates that require the states to provide all these free services.
Governor Wilson says the costs have gone wild. For example, in just four years, California's price tag for free medical care to indigent illegal aliens has risen 18-fold to more than $800 million.
``We simply cannot ignore the increasing costs,'' Wilson told the Monitor.
Wilson's sentiments here are bipartisan. Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) of Florida has threatened to sue the federal government to recoup the costs of immigration. Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) of New York indicates that he may join Florida in that suit.
Governor Chiles says: ``There are illegal aliens in Florida as a result of federal policy, or an absence of federal policy. And we're saying the federal government should pick up the bill.''
So far, Congress and the White House have refused, though governors say this week they were offered a sympathetic ear by White House officials. They also won some promises to strengthen border enforcement.
Meanwhile, that leaves the costs of illegal immigrants in the hands of local residents in areas of high immigration. California alone has an estimated 1 million illegal residents.
Even some states far from the border, such as Illinois, find their costs expanding for services to illegal immigrants.
In Illinois, such services currently cost $177 million a year. An aide to Governor Edgar says that includes $48 million for medical care, $77 million for education (K-12), and well over $40 million for prisons to house criminal aliens.
Edgar says most illegal migrants in Illinois come from Mexico and other nations in Latin America, although there are also some from Eastern Europe. Migration from Mexico - legal and illegal - has given Chicago the second largest Hispanic population in the US.
Not every state shares these deep concerns about undocumented migration. In Wyoming, for example, Gov. Michael Sullivan (D) says the issue hasn't made much of an impact, though he understands and sympathizes with the plight of California and Florida.
Even some governors without a severe problem are already speaking out, however. George Allen, the newly elected Republican governor in Virginia, says that protecting the border is clearly a federal responsibility.
Governor Allen says: ``California and [other] states along our southern border are just getting the heck knocked out of their budgets.''
One major ingredient in the problem, Allen suggests, is that ``if someone comes in illegally and gives birth to a child in this country, that child is [automatically] an American citizen, and therefore entitled to all the educational, welfare, medical, and all those benefits. I think the Congress needs to [change] that because that's a federal requirement...''
To lighten the load on state budgets, the governors voted at their winter meeting here this week to request that Washington take custody of undocumented aliens who are convicted of felonies in state courts. The cost of imprisoning criminal aliens has grown dramatically.