By Lou Cannon
States and local governments with heavy concentrations of illegal immigrants have long clamored for comprehensive federal immigration reform. But with such reform on the doorstep, many of these states and localities are complaining that they are in line to bear the brunt of the costs for providing healthcare, education and other services to immigrants who would become legal residents. "The federal government tends to protect itself from expenses and shift them to states and local governments," observes Ann Morse, an immigration expert in Washington, D.C, with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). That's exactly what Congress would do in the current language of a bipartisan bill to provide a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants who reside in the United States without legal authorization. The Senate has begun debating the bill, and a vote is expected within a month. When the federal government at President Ronald Reagan's behest last overhauled immigration laws in 1986, states and local governments received $4 billion in impact aid to help defray costs. The present bill includes no such funding. Lack of impact aid could impose financial hardships on states and localities that only recently emerged from years of belt-tightening during the Great Recession. Need for such aid is especially acute in California, Arizona and Texas and the counties and cities in these states that border Mexico or are significant destinations for immigrants. New York State and Florida also have significant populations of unauthorized immigrants. Los Angeles County alone has 1.1 million unauthorized immigrants, a tenth of the nation's total, and its officials are worried. "The federal government is going to be protecting itself against costs, and we're going to be left holding the bag," Mark Tajima, an analyst with the county's administrative office, told the Los Angeles Times. Much of the impact aid would relieve added costs in healthcare and education. Illegal immigrants are ineligible for coverage under the Obama administration's health law, the Affordable Care Act, but some experts believe that Obamacare, when fully implemented in 2014, will spur demand for more immigrant health services. Morse says the extent of this demand is "the great unknown," while also citing several known costs that immigration reform would impose on states and local governments with high numbers of unauthorized immigrants. For example, healthcare screening is required of everyone who applies for U.S. citizenship. This would boost medical costs at a time when states are strained by Medicaid, the federal-state program that provides healthcare for the poor and disabled. English-language proficiency is another citizenship requirement of the bill. This means additional adult-education spending, which in many places has been cut for budgetary reasons. The political fault lines on immigration reform shifted after the 2012 election, in which an overwhelming percentage of voters of Hispanic and Asian heritage cast their ballots for President Obama and other Democrats. Many Republicans who had previously opposed providing a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants abruptly found merit in this idea; one of them, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a conservative and potential GOP presidential candidate, is a prominent co-sponsor of the bill pending on the Senate floor. The seismic shift on immigration has been felt in the states. After momentous Republican statehouse victories in the 2010 midterm elections, most of which were preserved in 2012, legislatures passed numerous laws restricting unauthorized immigrants. Vestiges of this approach persist in the South. Earlier this year the Georgia Legislature passed and the governor signed a bill barring such immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses, public housing and retirement benefits in the Peach State. Overall, however, the mood in the states in 2013 has changed to one of offering immigrants a helping hand. Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada recently signed a bill that would allow immigrants to obtain driver's licenses, bringing to six the number of states that now permit this. Oregon and Colorado have passed laws allowing immigrants to pay in-state college tuition. A South Dakota bill that would have made it a felony for an employer to hire an undocumented worker was killed in committee. Even when states rebuff immigrants, they now tend to do so in anticipation of federal action. In Florida, for instance, Republican Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a bill known as the "Dream Act Driver License Law," passed almost unanimously by the Legislature, that would have allowed children of undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. Scott's rationale was that President Obama's 2012 executive order suspending deportation for non-citizens brought to the United States as children did not have the full force of law absent congressional approval. These "Dreamers," as they are known, would be high on the list for citizenship under the pending congressional immigration bill. Earlier this year, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed SB 225, which postponed for two years a law that would have created a guest worker program for undocumented immigrants in the Beehive State. Utah growers, like those in other states, complain of a shortage of domestic agricultural workers. The Obama administration signaled it would challenge any state attempt to establish a guest-worker program on grounds the federal government has pre-empted the issue. Utah's postponement reflects a belief that the pending federal law, which includes a guest-worker provision, will address their concerns. But will the federal bill, while dealing with these issues, also help pay the bill for states and local governments? Lobbyists for states and cities hope so. After meeting with Los Angeles county and city officials, California Sen. Diane Feinstein (D) directed her staff to look into the possibility of creating a "state impact assistance fund" similar to the one in the 1986 bill. Such impact aid, backed by organizations representing state and local government, is expected to be offered as an amendment on the Senate floor. Such a floor amendment was added to the 2007 immigration reform bill proposed by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). The amendment passed, although the bill did not. Immigration reform, as they say of old age, is not for the faint of heart. More than 300 amendments were offered to the immigration bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which 140 were adopted. And even though bi-partisan support for the measure appears to be rising, some Republicans insist on beefed up security on the Mexican border as a condition of support. The U.S. government, spending $18 billion in 2012 alone, already has built 650 miles of border fence and deployed 21,000 Border Patrol personnel. Immigrant-advocacy groups say that illegal immigration has been dropping since 2007 due less to the border enforcement than a scarcity of jobs in the United States and a reduced Mexican birth rate. Even so, the pending bill would provide another $3 billion for drone surveillance and additional patrol officers. Although advocates on both sides of the issue are passionate, much remains unknown about illegal immigrants in the United States, according to a report by Jeffery Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center. The 11-million figure so widely used is at best a rough estimate, he says. Of this number, Passel estimates that 55-60 percent, between 5 million and 6 million people, are from Mexico and that many of these are families with children who have come to the United States to settle. Under the bill as now written, these immigrants would be eligible for provisional status if they paid fees, fines, and taxes. They could gain legal residency a decade after the border was declared secure and be eligible for citizenship after 13 years. These provisions, absent from the 1986 bill, seem onerous to immigration advocates, who note that illegals have been paying taxes all along. In fact, Stephen Goss, chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, has estimated that undocumented workers contribute about $15 billion a year to Social Security through payroll taxes while taking out only $1 billion a year since few of them are eligible to receive benefits. At the same time, however, it's clear that costs for providing health care and educating unauthorized immigrants impose an added financial burden on the states and local governments in which they are concentrated. Compensating these governments for these costs should be part of immigration reform.
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