Who Should Get Aid From City?

Who should get aid from city?
Comment about citizenship status by mayors office sets off foes of illegal immigration

By Susan Carroll and Bradley Olson
The Houston Chronicle, May 17, 2009

Just weeks after Mayor Bill White did an about-face by supporting immigration screening at the city jails much to the joy of anti-illegal immigration activists he found himself again accused of running a 'sanctuary city.'

This time, the controversy stemmed from a seemingly innocuous mission statement for a small city agency, the Mayors Office for Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. The statement, posted on the city's Web site, said the office encouraged access to city services and benefits for all residents regardless of their 'current citizenship status.'

City officials recently purged the Web site of the phrase, but the episode sparked a broader debate about illegal immigrants access to city services, such as non-emergency medical clinic visits, housing programs, English classes and assistance for crime victims.

A Houston Chronicle survey of major municipal departments shows city personnel do not request proof of legal immigration status for access to services, a position adopted by many cities and counties across the country. But with the worsening economy, anti-illegal immigration activists are making a bigger issue about services delivered to undocumented immigrants, whose population was estimated by the Greater Houston Partnership last year to exceed 420,000 in the 10-county region.

'It slaps the American taxpayer in the face,' said Curtis Collier, president of U.S. Border Watch, based in Spring, which advocates for stricter immigration controls.

Some states have restricted illegal immigrants access to public benefits. In 2004, Arizona passed a proposal to prevent illegal immigrants from using state services, such as adult education and non-emergency health care.

Similar laws have been enacted in Colorado, Arkansas and Illinois, often with mixed results.

Generally, the city of Houstons policy is not to ask about immigration status, said Frank Michel, a city spokesman. He said the city has no plans to change that policy, particularly since everyone who lives within city boundaries shares part of the tax burden.

'Everyone should have access to the services to which they are legally entitled,' said Michel. 'So if somebody lives in the city and pays rent or a mortgage, for example, and has a fire in their home, should the fire department come and put out the fire? Yes.'

Benefit-access survey

Some anti-illegal immigration activists say government should draw a line at emergency services, but federal law requires municipalities to provide access to certain programs, including K-12 education, regardless of citizenship status. Other examples include immunizations and treatment of communicable diseases. That also applies to the WIC program, which provides supplemental food and formula for low-income pregnant women and young children.

In Houston, the Chronicle survey found:

* After being screened for availability based on city residency and income but not on immigration status Houstonians can go to any of seven clinics run by the city. Low-income families or individuals can get free medical services including family planning, immunizations, prenatal care and treatment for tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases, said Kathy Barton, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

* Houstons Department of Housing and Community Development also does not have a mechanism for verifying the immigration status of applicants for its programs to assist residents with housing needs, said Richard Celli, the department director. Celli pointed out that the department largely works with developers and nonprofit organizations which build and refurbish housing complexes and help administer federally funded programs.

He said those groups, not the city housing department, are responsible for vetting applicants for assistance.

* The city helps local residents apply for the state-administered Crime Victim Compensation fund, said Andy Kahan, head of the Mayors Crime Victims Office. While immigration status is not a factor, the applicant has to show at least an attempt at establishing state residency, Kahan said, adding the victims are paid with fines and court costs from convicted felons, not taxpayer dollars.

Collier said illegal immigrants should not have access to non-emergency medical care, or taxpayer-funded second-language, after-school and summer classes, and certain work programs.

'People who are illegally in this country should not qualify for any services outside of emergency health care and things of that sort that are granted to all human beings,' Collier said.

This is not a free ride

Cesar Espinosa, executive director of Houstons America For All, an immigration advocacy organization, said the citys assistance to immigrants both legal and illegal is vital to the community. He sends legal and non-legal residents to the city for help, and most people who receive assistance are legal residents, Espinosa said.

'Undocumented people do pay taxes, and they are paying for the services they are getting,' he said. 'This is not a free ride for anybody.'

As for that sentence in the mission statement that fueled the controversy?

It circulated via e-mail and was posted on chat boards of anti-illegal immigration groups in March.

Activists enlarged the sentence and displayed it on a poster on the steps of City Hall during a May 2 rally.

A few weeks ago, the wording was quietly changed by Michel. It was 'misleading and subject to misinterpretation,' the city spokesman said.

'It led people to believe we were doing something to aid and abet illegal immigration, and thats not the case,' Michel said.