DHS Employee Says Department Isn’t Enforcing Reporting Laws

Published: October 26, 2006 12:23 am

DHS employee says department isn't enforcing reporting laws

The Norman Transcript

CNHI News Service

OKLAHOMA CITY — An Oklahoma Department of Human Services employee says state human services officials are ignoring the policy to report potential illegal immigrants to the federal immigration agency.

Steve Thomas, social worker II in the agency's Oklahoma County Rockwell office, testified before members of Oklahoma House of Representatives' Revenue and Taxation Committee during an interim study on state immigration reform Tuesday.

“There's got to be an incentive not to come (to the United States) … we're not doing anything about it,” said Thomas, who is up for retirement in November from the department. “We need to ask for identity, we need to ask for citizenship.”

Thomas said he reviews the eligibility requirements to determine if a person qualifies to a few programs, including food stamps. He said for food stamps the person must be a citizen or an alien who has lived in the state at least five years. He looks at the income level and citizenship status of those coming into the agency, but he does not question the answers.

“If they want to say they're citizens, we go with it,” he said. Thomas works as a social worker II, which he said “means I've been there a long time and haven't been promoted.” He told legislators he was put in front of a civil rights board that told him he had scared a person by revealing the reporting requirements for illegal aliens and that was deterring the person from seeking assistance. Thomas said by law he is supposed to submit a memo to the state office with information on possible illegal immigrants and the state office can then determine whether or not to report the case to the feds.

“There are no workers sending memos,” he said.

“Illegal immigrants are not eligible for public assistance,” according to a statement from the Department of Human Services, which goes on to say illegal immigrants “know they are not eligible and rarely apply.”

Thomas was one of several people who testified at Tuesday's interim study. Jack Martin, special projects director for the non-profit agency Federation for American Immigration Reform, urged legislators to pass legislation that turns off jobs to people here illegally.

It would be a “Field of Dreams in reverse. Turn off the jobs, then they won't come,” he said.

State Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, conducted the study and said he will reintroduce a bill to penalize businesses that hire undocumented workers.

“The second that I do so, you are going to hear a cry in the business community,” because they think it will take too much time to verify citizenship, he said.

Martin said there is a computer program companies can use that can detect whether a person is legal in the country. He said it takes a matter of minutes to enter the information into the system and may take a day or two to receive the results.

Martin estimates there were about 83,000 illegal aliens in Oklahoma in 2005 who cost the state about $207 million in annual public education, emergency medical and incarceration costs. Education makes up the biggest portion of the pie, with an estimated $161.1 million of the $207 million. He estimates there are about 10,325 illegal alien students and about 14,455 U.S.-born children of illegal aliens in Oklahoma public schools in 2004.

The estimates are derived from other population estimates from the U.S. Census data calculating the rising population and the foreign-born population.

“No one knows how many illegal aliens there are,” Martin said.

According to DHS policy, workers are required to report if a person admits illegal aliens are present in the household and there are documents that appear to be forged or the person presents a formal order of deportation or removal.

Terry Bryce, chief of staff for the Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Nutrition Program through the Oklahoma State Department of Health, also testified for the study. He said employees in the program do not track the citizenship status of those who come in because the only criterion is residency. The program is funded 100 percent by the federal government and they hand down the laws, he said.

Bryce did say not having the programs for residents would be detrimental.

“It would make it very difficult for those individuals to live a healthy lifestyle,” he said.

Patti Davis, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Hospital Association, expressed a similar sentiment related to treating any patient that comes into a hospital. She said hospitals are bound by many state and federal laws where they cannot turn away patients and by federal law it is impossible to know a person's citizenship status.

“We believe our staff are health givers, not INS enforcers,” she said.

Oklahoma hospitals provided about $515 million in care in 2005 to uninsured or underinsured patients and did not get compensated. The Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003 freed up about $250 million per year in reimbursements for fiscal years 2005 to 2008 for hospitals and ambulance services, but Davis said it required a verification of citizenship status to receive any reimbursements.

Jaclyn Houghton is CNHI News Service Oklahoma reporter.