- The Washington Times - Friday, April 15, 2005

Members of the Virginia Latino Advisory Commission yesterday said they will brainstorm to create a public awareness campaign for a new state law that will deny illegal aliens access to public benefits, including Medicaid.

Most of the commissioners opposed the measure before Gov. Mark Warner signed it into law last month but said yesterday that their goal is to make sure it is implemented “with dignity.”

“The governor asked for our help to monitor the fairness of this law and look at the costs,” commission Chairman J. Walter Tejada said. “Regardless of what some of us felt, our task now is to monitor it.”

Mr. Tejada read a letter dated April 13 from the governor, who asked the commission to find ways to “increase public awareness” on what the new law covers. Mr. Warner gave the commission a Nov. 15 deadline.

The law requires state and local governments to verify the legal presence of residents seeking nonemergency public benefits. It is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1.

Mr. Warner also asked the commission to provide guidance on implementing the law to state and local agencies.

The commission makes recommendations to the governor but has no authority to change the law, stop it from taking effect or direct localities not to enforce it.

Mr. Tejada, an Arlington County Board member, said he thinks the law’s effect will be “broad” and is “beyond the Latino community and will affect every person, no matter what walk of life they are from.”

The commissioners said they think the law is not clear about which agencies and which people are affected.

“This is a huge issue,” said member Cecelia M. Espenoza, who works at the Department of Justice. “What are those additional agencies that will need to be trained in light of this law?”

Commissioner Veronica Donahue, with the Nelson Migrant Education Program in Amherst, said when Mr. Warner signed the law, she received dozens of phone calls from scared immigrants who didn’t understand its scope.

“From Lynchburg to Charlottesville, people asked if the law meant their child can’t go to school tomorrow,” she said. “There was a lot of concern.”

Mr. Tejada agreed.

“The bottom line is that there are a lot of unanswered questions,” he said. “There are still things that can be done in order to make it respectful [and] fair. I challenge the commission to think about how we can do it.”

Mr. Tejada will be on a panel formed yesterday that will meet regularly through the deadline.

Other commissioners are Beatriz Amberman of Virginia Beach, Ricardo Cabellos of Fairfax County, Tanya M. Gonzalez of the Hispanic Liaison Office in Richmond and Indira N. Moran of the Northern Virginia Family Service in Woodbridge.

Mr. Cabellos said the panel should consider holding town hall meetings around the state.

One option is using radio and television ads to alert residents to the law, similar to a campaign used by the Department of Motor Vehicles in 2003.

The DMV advertised a new law that required drivers to provide documents proving their legal presence in order to obtain a license. The state spent $2 million for the public relations campaign to hire new workers and train DMV employees on how to implement the law.

A state study estimated the cost at the state level would be more than $12 million to hire and train 226 new workers to process the more in-depth applications for Medicaid and welfare.

The law passed the Republican-controlled General Assembly this winter by a veto-proof majority.

It applies only to aliens 19 and older. Illegal immigrants of any age still will be eligible for emergency aid, such as immunizations and pregnancy tests.

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