- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

LOS ANGELES — Proponents of stricter border controls complain that legal immigrants who cannot pay their hospital bills are a huge drain on the medical system, and say it is time to force the patients’ immigration sponsors to pay up.

A lawsuit, sponsored by the Friends of Immigration Law Enforcement in Washington, asserts that Los Angeles County is violating federal law by not collecting from immigration sponsors. The group estimates that as a result, taxpayers are being forced to foot as much as $20 million a year in unpaid bills.

The county says the money at stake is far less than that. Like many local governments nationwide, the county concluded years ago that the costs of tracking down sponsors would exceed the amount of money recouped.

Immigrant rights advocates also warn that the lawsuit, if successful, would discourage legal immigrants from seeking medical care for fear of burdening their sponsors.

A Los Angeles judge is expected to decide Sept. 14 whether the case can proceed. Both sides of the immigration debate are watching closely.

“I’m hoping that the court will order the county to do the public-minded, responsible thing and begin asking people who they are and whether they’re legally entitled to the services,” said Craig Nelsen, director of the group sponsoring the lawsuit.

Under a 1996 federal law, many would-be immigrants must find sponsors — almost always family members — who sign an “affidavit of support” promising to pay for any public services received by the immigrant if he or she cannot pay. The law was intended to prevent immigrants from moving to the United States solely to go on welfare.

About 75 percent of legal immigrants admitted to this country since 1996 were sponsored, said Jeff Passel, a researcher at the Washington-based Urban Institute. Immigrants also can become legal permanent residents if a U.S. employer petitions for them or if they are refugees.

Both sides of the debate say this lawsuit could set a precedent by using the issue of sponsorship in the health care system to tighten immigration policy.

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