By Valeria Fernández

New America Media

Nov 30, 2009

PHOENIX, Ariz.–A new Arizona law aimed at denying public benefits to undocumented immigrants could hurt U.S. citizens as well.

Pastors, community activists and non-profit directors in Arizona are warning that the bill which took effect last Tuesday could have a chilling effect on immigrant communities and their U.S born children in need of health care, food and housing services.

“This is a terrible change,” said Alfredo Gutiérrez, a retired senator and editor of La Frontera Times. Since undocumented migrants don’t qualify for most state benefits this is a redundancy, and it’s children who would pay the price, he said.

HB 2008 requires state, cities and any government employee in Arizona to report to immigration authorities any undocumented immigrants who request a public benefit. Government workers could face up to four months in jail if they fail to make a report. The law also gives taxpayers the right to sue a state or city agency if they believe the law is not enforced properly. 

The new regulations were included as part of the budget negotiations during a special session in the state.

“They were very sneaky on the way they put it in there,” said Lydia Guzman, president of the statewide pro-immigrant coalition Somos America. 

The law has the support of Republicans, including Gov. Jan Brewer and Sen. Russell Pearce. Pearce has been at the forefront of legislative efforts to related to undocumented migrants. 

Arizona is considered a testing ground for immigration laws for the rest of the nation. Over the past five, years Republican have enacted legislation that ranges from banning scholarships for undocumented students to denying bail to undocumented people charged with a crime. 

On 2004, Arizona voters approved Proposition 200 aimed at limiting access to public benefits by undocumented immigrants. The impact of the initiative was reduced to five programs after scrutiny by Attorney General Terry Goddard. 

Despite it’s limitations, Prop. 200 had an extended effect on immigrant families who were afraid of requesting emergency health care services and pre-natal care for pregnant women, according to immigrant advocates. 

They fear this new bill would add to the ongoing anti-immigrant climate. 

While the law doesn’t eliminate eligibility for services it could require a caseworker to report on an undocumented parent if they find out about their status in a casual conversation. 

“This is just unconstitutional, what they’re doing is penalizing children who are entitled to the services, but they’re going to take it away because they’re the children of immigrants,” said Luis Ibarra, director of Friendly House a non-profit agency that services Latinos and immigrants in Phoenix. 

The Department of Economic Security (DES) did not respond to queries about which services will be impacted by the law. Nor did it clarify whether or not undocumented parents could safely request a benefit for their U.S. children without being reported to immigration authorities. 

“I’m mostly worried about the U.S. children of fathers that have been deported. Many mothers are having to request food stamps because they don’t have another choice,” said Magdalena Schwartz, pastor of the Disciples of the Kingdom Free Methodist Church in Mesa. “They’re not asking for themselves, they’re asking for their children.” 

The state law won’t impact eligibility for federal benefits or essential services like emergency aid or police, some attorneys argue. But there’s growing concern that many state workers would report someone out of fear of loosing their job. 

Guzman, president of Somos America, has been receiving phone calls from concerned immigrants but also social workers. 

“A social worker told me: We can’t tell people not to apply if their children will starve to death. But on the other hand, what am I going to do, it’s not like I can find another job easily?,’” she said. 

Another concern is that many of these workers might report on refugees or domestic violence victims who have a legit claim to a benefit for lack of understanding of the immigration laws in this country, she added. 

Despite the alarm, the law’s implementation might be short-lived. 

This coming Tuesday the Arizona Supreme Court will rule on the future of the law due to a lawsuit brought by the League of Arizona Cities and Towns. 

The association that represents 90 cities and towns didn’t sue about the content of the law but the way it was created. They said it violated the state constitution because it was part of a state budget package, not a stand-alone bill. And it went beyond the scope of the special session called by the governor intended to address budgetary concerns. 

On Tuesday, governor Brewer called the challenge “outrageous and shocking” at a time when Arizona is facing a budget deficit, according to a report from the Associated Press. Brewer’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

If the current lawsuit is unsuccessful, “MALDEF [the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund] is prepared to go forward to challenge the law” said attorney Daniel Ortega, who would act as local council and fought against Prop. 200. 

In the meantime, Ortega said “we’re going to have to tell people, ‘If you’re undocumented don’t go and ask for services.” 

Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist and contributor for NAM in Phoenix Arizona.

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