Friday, December 30, 2005

RICHMOND — A new Virginia law that bars illegal aliens from receiving state-funded benefits goes into effect tomorrow.

The law restricts anybody without a Social Security number from receiving Medicaid, temporary assistance for needy families, and help from several other state and local programs.

Supporters say the measure could save the state millions.

“A lot of us were saying, instead of raising taxes, why don’t we start prioritizing where we’re spending our existing money,” said Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican, who sponsored the bill. “One of the things we found was the state was not checking for legal presence for Medicaid.”

Activists who oppose the new law say it duplicates other state and federal statutes that already block illegal aliens from receiving government benefits. For example, federal law prohibits immigrants without green cards or work visas from receiving food stamps and assistance from similar programs.

They also say the new law might confuse legal immigrants and keep them from applying for benefits to which they are entitled.

Mr. Albo could not specify how many illegal aliens might be receiving public benefits. But he said the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles rejected 187,000 applicants the first year after 2004 legislation restricted illegals from obtaining driver’s licenses.

“To me, the same arguments that presented themselves for the … driver’s license debate are here in the public-benefits debate,” said Mr. Albo, who sponsored the motor vehicle legislation.

However, social services officials are not being inundated by illegal aliens, said Walter Tejada, chairman of the Virginia Latino Advisory Commission.

“The proponents of this law could never cite specific figures of exactly how much [money] it is that immigrants are draining out of the system,” Mr. Tejada said. “It’s a lot of hot air.”

He cited a 2003 Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission study that stated only a “negligible” number of foreign-born persons are getting major social-services benefits.

Still, social-services officials acknowledge some illegal aliens could be accessing programs.

“I cannot tell you that there are no illegal aliens that have ever received benefits,” said Duke Storen, who directs benefits programs with the Department of Social Services. “I’m sure there are a few.”

Similar laws are pending in Georgia and Oklahoma as states crack down on illegal aliens, said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit group dedicated to revising immigration policy.

National estimates show roughly 500,000 aliens enter the United States annually, with many settling in North Carolina and Georgia.

Before “it was easier just to look the other way,” Mr. Mehlman said. “What’s happening now in Virginia and other places is the cost of looking away has become prohibitive.”

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