Saturday, September 25, 2004

Ten years ago, with Proposition 187, California voters sought to curb illegal aliens’ use of non-emergency public benefits like public education and welfare. A pitched immigration battled ensued, and the measure died in a legal morass years later. But it would influence the landmark 1996 federal welfare-reform law and echo in similar proposals around the country. Something similar is brewing this year in Arizona.

In November, voters will revisit the question of public services for illegals when they decide on Proposition 200, the Protect Arizona Now Initiative, which would require applicants for voter registration and public benefits to show proof of Arizona citizenship. The idea is to cut expenditures on the state’s burgeoning illegal alien population and end issuance of fraudulent drivers’ licenses: Upwards of half a million illegals live in Arizona. They are thought to cost taxpayers as much as $1 billion a year and are known to register to vote in order to obtain fraudulent state IDs. The proposition has teeth: It will slap public officials who fail to verify citizenship with a misdemeanor and allow aggrieved private citizens to sue the government over lax enforcement. If it passes, Arizona’s proposition will be the first in a wave of citizen efforts to tighten law enforcement on illegals. California and Colorado are prominent among states that have similar emerging propositions.

As it happens, most of Arizona’s political and business establishment are opposed to Proposition 200. In nearly every major public opinion poll in recent years, voters overwhelmingly support the kind of tighter restrictions on illegals it contains, but in Arizona the opposition includes Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, Gov. Janet Napolitano, and the state’s Chamber of Commerce and its hospitals. The question is why. There are several arguments circulating against the proposal, but only one seems convincing.

On the proposition’s merits, the objections are that the initiative would cause Arizona to lose federal monies for health and human services programs, and that it could create public health problems. The governor’s office asserted last month that as much as $250 million in funds from federal programs like the Women, Infants and Children program would be lost, claiming that Proposition 200 would violate federal prohibitions on the use of citizenship status as a prerequisite to receiving services. The governor’s staff also claimed that the proposition “could lead to an increase in communicable diseases.” On both accounts they would seem to be wrong.

Both the Center for Immigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigration Reform point out that Proposition 200 would not affect the essential services in question. FAIR staff attorney Michael Hethmon notes that federal law prohibits citizenship checks for K-12 education, emergency-response services, including 911 response and disaster relief, or essential public-health services like vaccinations or treatment for communicable diseases. Proposition 200 could not be interpreted to end any of these services for illegals, he notes, so its provisions would extend only to non-emergency services such as voter registration, obtaining drivers’ licenses, or receiving welfare benefits. So much for the governor’s argument.

What’s more, Proposition 200 would seem to be well within the letter of U.S. Code Title 8, Chapter 14, Section 1601, statements of national policy on welfare and immigration. The relevant passages: “Aliens within the Nation’s borders [should] not depend on public resources to meet their needs, but rather rely on their own capabilities and the resources of their families, their sponsors, and private organizations,” and that “it is a compelling government interest to remove the incentive for illegal immigration provided by the availability of public benefits.”

So why oppose the Proposition? The only legitimate reason to surface thus far is that some of the proposition’s backers adhere to repulsively un-American ideologies. One, Dr. Virginia Abernethy, an emeritus professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and adviser to the principle group behind the effort, is a self-described “racial separationist.” Arizona’s politicians are rightly wary of associating with such a figure. If Proposition 200 fails this November, the onus will lie squarely with Protect Arizona Now’s chairman Kathy McKee, who appointed Dr. Abernethy to the group’s advisory board.

The other, less flattering answer is that organized interests prefer the immigration status quo. The business interests that the Chamber of Commerce represents prefer to maintain the flow of illegals to Arizona to ensure they have labor for low-paying or high-risk jobs. Politicians fear their reaction, and that of public-sector unions, which object to criminalizing fraud and abuse in the distribution of public services. What’s more, both Democrats and Republicans are courting the growing Latino voting community. Neither wants to antagonize them with a hard line on illegals. By contrast, the costs of illegal immigration are borne in a diffuse manner by the taxpaying public. They have no concentrated constituency of their own.

It’s too bad that Proposition 200’s local backers chose to associate with racial separatists, since the content of the proposition is quite promising. We invite the measure’s opponents to table other concerns not yet voiced in the early rounds of debate. Should similar propositions taking shape in California and Colorado gain steam, we may have another national debate on illegals on our hands. To hash out a workable, cost-effective and humane policy on illegals, such discussions will be indispensable.

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