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Votes

What is a Public Benefit?

Arlington government officials describe new state law as another unfunded mandate and one that discriminates against immigrants.

Reacting to the passage of a bill that will require people seeking state benefits to present proof of U.S. citizenship, County Board member Walter Tejada called a press conference protesting it as discrimination against immigrants and an undue burden on local governments.

"One has to question the motivation that exists for these bills to be written," Tejada said. "This is, once again, the state infringing on local authority. We think we know our local community better."

Put forth by Del. David Albo (R-42) in the House and Sen. Emmet Hanger (R-24) in the Senate, the bill was signed by Gov. Mark Warner and will take effect Jan. 1, 2006. According to its text, the measure is aimed at preventing illegal immigrants from obtaining state services like Medicaid. Albo said the bill will save taxpayer money. Yet according to Tejada, its real aims are more political than practical.

"All 100 members of the House have to run for re-election this year — what a coincidence," Tejada said. "Is this not political grand-standing in the purest sense? The General Assembly has now put Virginia on the cutting edge of the anti-immigrant sentiment."

Tejada pointed to a 2003 report from the state's Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) that concluded immigrants do not place a disproportionate burden on state services. The same report also found that 44 percent of Virginia's job market growth during the 1990s was due to an influx of immigrant workers.

"There's no question we need immigration reform," Tejada said. "What we need to do is have a heart to heart conversation throughout the nation on this issue. If the current system is failing us, then we need to reform it. Face it, it's the same as business."

For local governments, he added, the passage of this latest bill will create new challenges.

"How is this going to be enforced?" Tejada asked. "The biggest burden is really going to be on senior citizens, on the disabled, any folks who might now have to run back home to get identification or who might not have it."

TEJADA ADDED THAT to enforce the measure, local governments will need money to train staff on the new requirements and how to resolve any problems that might come with them. That money, he added, isn't coming from the state.

"If they think taking a two-hour workshop on these matters is going to be enough, they're living in a fantasy," Tejada said.

The new law, Tejada said, is also a redundant one. Federal law already prohibits illegal immigrants from applying for public benefits.

"It duplicates a law that already exists," he said. "We already have this law, it's called federal law. It's a redundant law because if undocumented people apply to try to get benefits, they aren't qualified."

The bill's passage was met with a letter sent to Gov. Warner before he signed it. The message was penned by County Board Chairman Jay Fisette and signed by the Arlington County Board and local lawmakers.

"In its present form, this legislation would interfere with every Virginia local government's authority to determine how to spend our own taxpayers' dollars on local programs," Fisette wrote. "That is inconsistent with the tradition of federalism rooted in our own history, and consequently, we urge either that you veto the legislation, or amend it to remove the provisions that apply to local-only funds."

One problem, Fisette wrote, is that outside of Medicaid, the definition of a "public benefit" is unclear.

"Despite intense research and discussion, we remain uncertain exactly what programs are covered under this legislation, and uncertain of the legislation's affect on our programs," Fisette wrote. "With over one third of our residents born in other countries, we remain concerned about the cost to the County of requesting documentation, and the additional burden it will add to all residents, including individuals with disabilities, and the elderly who will need to return to the offices to produce another set of identification."

The letter urged Warner to amend or veto the bill.

According to Albo, Virginia taxpayers could save millions of dollars through the new law. Illegal immigrants, he said, are an untold drain on Medicaid and other public programs. Those programs, he added, have failed to monitor properly whether illegal immigrants are applying for the benefits they offer.

"Nobody knows how much money is being spent supporting illegal immigrants because nobody ever asks," Albo said in March. "When a person comes to apply for benefits, they might say that they are a U.S. citizen, but no one ever tries to confirm that."

Albo pointed to legislation passed in 2004 that prevents illegal immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses. In the first year it was enacted, he said, 187,000 people were turned away from state motor vehicles offices.

"Let's take a conservative estimate and say that only one percent of those people who got turned away are illegal immigrants," he said. "That makes about 1,800 people. If the experience is the same with public benefits, we're looking at a huge taxpayer savings."