Benefits Law Nets Illegal Immigrant Suspects

Benefits law nets illegal immigrant suspects

By Casey Newton
The Arizona Republic (Phoenix), December 18, 2009

Only weeks after a new state law went into effect, the Department of Economic Security has provided federal authorities with nearly 800 names of people who tried to obtain public benefits but are believed to be illegal immigrants.

House Bill 2008, which took effect last month, established new identity-verification requirements for agencies that provide public benefits. People seeking benefits must provide identification and now, in some cases, also provide sworn affidavits affirming their citizenship. Agencies are required to turn over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement the names of people who they believe may be illegal immigrants.

Since mid-November, DES has discovered 772 people who sought public benefits but could not verify their legal status, said Steve Meissner, a DES spokesman. Because they could not verify their status, they never received benefits.

DES sent those names to ICE this week. ICE plans to review the referrals to determine the individuals' immigration status and whether they have a criminal history, said Vincent Picard, an ICE spokesman.

'ICE will continue to investigate cases that meet our priorities and further our mission,' Picard said in an e-mail. 'Top priority is given to aliens who pose the greatest threat to public safety.'

In the past year, ICE has begun to arrest more immigrants with previous criminal records as part of its shift toward that priority.

DES did not say which services the people believed to be illegal immigrants were applying for, but the services likely included food stamps, cash assistance and unemployment benefits, Meissner said.

To verify identities, agency employees have been instructed to ask anyone seeking 'any state or local public benefit' to prove citizenship by providing a driver's license, passport or other legal identification.

In some instances, applicants also must sign a sworn affidavit attesting to the validity of their ID.

If people could not provide the information, they were denied benefits and put on the list.

Meissner said it's not the responsibility of DES to determine immigration status. But if employees within the agency suspect fraud, they can turn information over for criminal prosecution.

HB 2008, signed into law in September as part of the 2010 state budget, is a wide-ranging bill intended to verify the immigration status of nearly everyone who comes into contact with state government, including vendors, contractors and employees. It establishes criminal penalties for government employees who discover illegal immigrants but do not report them.

Some provisions of the law have led to confusion among agency officials, leading the Department of Administration to request a legal opinion from Attorney General Terry Goddard. Among other items, agencies have asked how the law applies to vendors based outside the U.S., what constitutes a 'discovered violation' of federal immigration laws, and what qualifies as a 'public benefit.'

Many state and local agencies are waiting on the attorney general's opinion before they determine whether they need to change their policies or procedures. Other agencies, including the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, are expected to join DES in referring the names of possible illegal immigrants to ICE soon. But the details have not yet been finalized.

Officials at the Department of Health Services believe they are in compliance with HB 2008 but won't know for certain until Goddard's opinion is released, said Duane Huffman, legislative liaison for the department.

Local officials have expressed confusion about the new law as well, wondering whether they will have to verify the citizenship of anyone seeking to use a public pool or obtain a library card.

A Goddard spokeswoman said the office would not speculate on when the opinion would be released.

The confusion has extended into immigrant communities, said immigrant advocates. Undocumented pregnant women are scared of applying for benefits they remain legally entitled to, such as hospital care for the delivery of their babies.

'There's a lot of uncertainty and a lot of fear,' said Connie Andersen, an immigrant advocate with the Valley Interfaith Project.

Elias Bermudez of advocacy group Immigrants Without Borders said he has been flooded with calls from undocumented immigrants afraid to apply for benefits for their children who were born here.

Bermudez said he believes names turned over to ICE included undocumented immigrants applying for benefits for their U.S. citizen children, who are eligible for benefits.

'They are not applying for themselves,' he said.