FUELED by the highest immigration figures this century, Congress and the Clinton administration are under assault from states with large immigrant populations. Their war cry: ``Pay us what you owe for the costs of federally mandated services to illegal aliens.''
Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) filed suit against the federal government for $1.5 billion in March. In April, California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) followed with a $2 billion claim, and Arizona's Gov. Fife Symington (R) with a $121 million claim in May. New York State plans to file a suit in coming weeks, while Texas and New Jersey are considering joining Florida's lawsuit. Additional suits from California and Arizona are promised in coming months.
``If Congress and the Clinton administration won't act to relieve these mandates, maybe the courts will,'' says Governor Wilson, who is up for reelection this November.
Claiming that a million illegal aliens now reside in Los Angeles alone - an enclave equal to the size of San Diego - Wilson calls the federal government's policies ``perverse incentives ... for people to emigrate to this country illegally.'' Wilson just completed a a 10-day, cross-country trip to trumpet his cause.
``We have a federal border patrol to keep illegals out,'' he said, while the federal government ``compels the states to provide free health care, education, and other benefits ... a powerful incentive for slipping in.''
Wilson has asked for $377 million to cover the cost of incarcerating about 16,700 illegal immigrants and $1.6 billion more to pay for the prisons that house them. The Arizona suit, filed in San Diego, also seeks the immediate deportation of illegals who have completed state-prison sentences.
Wilson's new deputy chief of staff, Leslie Goodman, says the suit is only the first of many. A separate one seeking reimbursements for federally mandated health care will be filed in coming months. Another will follow in an effort to receive reimbursements for requirements to provide education to illegal immigrants.
California state lawyers are preparing the legal arguments, possibly testing 10th Amendment rights of state sovereignty, she says.
``This is a matter of survival,'' Ms. Goodman says. ``The failure of Congress to reimburse us for these costs has wreaked havoc on our state.''
Faced with the storm of suits and other pressure, the Clinton administration asked Congress in April for $350 million to help governors pay costs of imprisoning aliens convicted of felonies. Budget Director Leon Panetta acknowledged that ``it isn't fair to ask the states to pick up the full costs of imprisoning.'' But he said the states would be better off lobbying Congress than suing the government.
``This is a good start,'' Sen. Bob Graham (D) of Florida said. ``However, our goal is for the federal government to take full, not partial, responsibility.''
It isn't enough for state officials in Arizona either, who have decided to use the strategy of filing multiple suits instead of one jumbo suit, according to Kurt Davis, an aide to Governor Symington.
``I know the numbers are large, but the federal government created the problem,'' Symington says. ``They have a clear responsibility to pay these costs. They have to find the money.''
There is growing evidence that the complaints are getting through.
In a budget resolution passed last week, the House for the first time has acknowledged that:
* ``The federal government is solely responsible for setting and enforcing national immigration policy.''
* ``The federal government has not adequately enforced immigration laws.''
* ``This weak enforcement has imposed financial costs on state and local governments.''
In a meeting last month between Attorney General Janet Reno, Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service Doris Meissner, and Rep. Elton Gallegly (R) of California, Ms. Reno and Ms. Meissner promised a 40 percent increase in border patrol and resources along the Mexico/US border within six months.
But critics say such actions make up only a patchwork of reforms for a policy needing complete overhaul.
``Lawsuits and congressional resolutions are a step in the right direction,'' notes Ira Mehlman, West Coast director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). ``But they should all know there is no money in Washington to be had. If all these large state delegations really put their heads and votes together, they could change the policies that are costing them so much money to begin with.''
For California, the total yearly cost of illegals that Wilson has been using is $3 billion. The issue is urgent politically for Wilson as state-budget negotiations begin this month. Following state deficits of $14.5 billion, $11 billion, and $8 billion, California projects a $4 billion short-fall this year.
Wilson has been accused of trying to stir up anti-immigration sentiment to boost his election chances, given the popularity of Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown. His public approval ratings notched up significantly last summer after he called on Clinton to deny citizenship to the children of illegals and to create a tamper-proof identification card.
``We feel there is a time when public sentiment coalesces around an issue; that time is now on immigration,'' Goodman says.