Social Workers Reject Role as INS Agents
New York and other cities are balking at a new federal law that requires public workers to report illegal immigrants who turn to them for assistance
NEW YORK — Ms. C. is too frightened to speak for herself. When this small, delicate woman arrived from southern Asia several years ago, she believed her husband-to-be was a US citizen. She expected to become one soon too.
The man turned out to be both abusive and a liar. He wasn't a citizen, and he used her illegal immigrant status to keep her cowed and in his control.
Now alone and illegal, she's terrified she'll be deported.
Tens of thousands of illegal immigrants like Ms. C. typically might turn to city agencies for help. But a new federal law may change that. It forbids cities from shielding illegals from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) when they go for help.
"With the changes in the law, she's even more scared than before," says a friend who's helping her.
The change has prompted controversy, and many cities are balking. They contend it undermines their need to be sure all their residents - documented or not - feel free to call for help. The federal government counters it needs to stem the tide of immigration.
"It's a classical balance of competing interests," says Arthur Helton, director of the Migration Programs at the Open Society Institute in New York.
New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other cities have policies that specifically forbid municipal employees from turning illegals in to the INS, unless they're suspected of criminal activity.
They are based on the idea the general welfare of the city is served best when everyone, documented or not, reports crimes, gets medical help when they need it, and sends their children to school.
New York City has an estimated 400,000 illegal immigrants who have between 50,000 and 70,0000 children. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani sees it as crucial to keeping the city together. "If illegal immigrants were afraid to put their children in public schools for fear that they would be reported to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, what would happen to their children? What would they do with their children?" asks Mr. Giuliani.
That argument held little weight in Washington. When the immigration bill passed, with one line it outlawed any city from prohibiting its employees from reporting illegal immigrants. It was a victory for conservatives.
"I find it hard to believe there was any executive order on the books that prohibited citizens in the US from carrying out their duty to report illegal activity," says Mark Wilson, the labor policy fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
"When [the immigrants] entered the country illegally they knew they were breaking the law and should have to face the consequences."
Giuliani, a former prosecutor, won't argue with that logic, but contends it's overridden by the pragmatic need to cope with the people who are already here.
Calling the federal law a "phony rhetorical solution," the city challenged it in court. It argued the federal government overstepped its constitutional bounds by infringing on the city's 10th Amendment right to control the police and protect the community.
Chicago filed a similar suit, which is still pending. In Los Angeles and other municipalities, officials preferred to keep their heads down and policies in place.
Two weeks ago, a federal judge rejected New York City's arguments, but the city is appealing. In the meantime, the best the mayor can do is "urge" his employees not to report illegals. The result is widespread uncertainty and fear.
"There's now the danger that on any given day any city worker might decide to report someone, and so now there's even more fear out there," says Richard Blum, a staff attorney at the ACLU.
Social service workers at domestic-abuse shelters, homeless shelters, and victims service agencies in New York contend illegal immigrants will be driven further underground and exposed to more exploitation.
"Petrified, the women are going to be petrified," says Grace Perez, executive director of the Violence Intervention Program, a statewide service for battered women based in New York City.
Others, like Ursala Levelt of the Immigration Rights Center in New York, contend that it's wrong for the federal government to put social workers meant to fight poverty and help people into the position of law-enforcement agents.
But Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, the chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee, argues that any policy that appears to offer sanctuary to illegals also serves as a magnet to draw more to the city.
He also challenges the notion that the city's overall welfare is better served with a policy of nondisclosure.
"High concentrations of illegal immigrants tend to depress wages and displace workers," says Representative Smith. "In addition, illegal aliens are about eight times more likely to commit a serious crime than others."
But immigration advocates argue the change in policy will not act as a deterrent. They also contend the INS wouldn't want to be flooded with calls from thousands of city workers from across the country every day with tips about illegal immigrants.
INS spokesman Michael Gilhooly declined comment on that, and said, "We have excellent cooperation from municipal, city, and county officials in removing criminal aliens." And he pointed to the case of the deaf Mexican trinket sellers who were recently found in New York City as an example.