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Monday, July 12, 2004

Effect of Nov. migrant initiative unclear

Effect of Nov. migrant initiative unclear
Effect of Nov. migrant initiative unclear
Elvia Díaz
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 12, 2004 12:00 AM

Adriana Ramírez, a 26-year-old Mexican native, is not worrying about Arizona's ballot initiative to combat illegal immigration.

She's an undocumented immigrant. But the measure, Protect Arizona Now, would have no effect on her life, she said.

Her husband is a legal resident, working full time, and has his own home in Phoenix. She does not get government handouts except the medical care she received when three of her four small children were born in Phoenix during the past four years.

Her children would still be able to go school because the federal government gives them that right. If she or any of her siblings ends up in the emergency room, they can't be turned away.

"I really don't see how my life would change," Ramírez said in Spanish about the proposed measure aimed at keeping people like her from crossing the border illegally and settling in Arizona.

Between now and November, the measure is expected to fuel a fiery debate over the stakes for Arizona and the thousands of migrants who live in the state illegally.

To backers of Protect Arizona Now, the measure is the tool to combat voter and welfare fraud because it would target everyone in the state who votes and seeks public benefits.

To critics, it is an attempt to intimidate government workers and force the estimated 300,000 to 350,000 undocumented immigrants to remain in the shadows.

The disagreements will likely grow sharper if, as is considered likely, Protect Arizona Now is placed on the Nov. 2 ballot and Arizona becomes a national battleground for the debate over illegal immigration.

State election officials will determine in early August if at least 122,612 of the more than 190,000 signatures filed on behalf of Protect Arizona Now are valid. Generally, such a margin is more than enough, even if many signatures are found to be invalid.

Critics are concerned about what they consider the measure's underlying message.

"It creates fear and confusion," said Salvador Reza, executive director of Tonatierra, a non-profit advocacy group for immigrants. "It sends a message to government workers to be on the look out for undocumented immigrants."

Criminal penalties

The measure would require Arizonans who vote to show proof of citizenship to register to vote and to show an ID when casting a ballot in person. It also makes it a crime punishable with up to four months in jail or a $750 fine for state or local government workers who fail to report undocumented immigrants seeking state or local public benefits.

Nobody seems to know for sure exactly what public benefits would be affected. Last week, Michael Braun, State Legislative Council executive director, said that term is not defined in the proposed measure, prompting a panel of lawmakers to exclude any such reference in the publicity pamphlets that will go to voters in November.

"The initiative is pretty clear," Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said recently, rejecting the notion that the measure would affect every public service. "Voters want the border secured and the laws enforced."

State workers said federal law already requires them to check the eligibility of applicants because the federal government shells out a good chunk of the money for an assortment of benefits offered in the state. For instance, undocumented immigrants do not get child-care assistance, food stamps or cash for other needs, said Liz Barker, spokeswoman for the Department of Economic Security.

Health benefits

There are roughly 65,000 undocumented immigrants enrolled in the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, said Frank López, spokesman for the program, which provides health coverage to the poor. They are mostly people like Ramírez who have children who were born in this country and thus are entitled to the benefits. They get an AHCCCS card to be used only for medical emergencies as stipulated by federal law, López said.

Kathy McKee, state director of Protect Arizona Now, said she believes state workers have no business issuing a medical emergency card to undocumented immigrants. She said the measure would stop any type of welfare fraud workers may mistakenly allow.

"We're not changing existing law. We want the laws to be enforced," McKee said. " I don't know what is so confusing about that."

José Funes, a 45-year-old undocumented immigrant from México, said he and his three teenage children do not get any type of welfare benefits and he does not expect to get anything now or in the future.

Funes, a day labor worker in northeast Phoenix is not sure what to expect if Protect Arizona Now is approved. He rents an apartment, so does not need the city to pick up his garbage or provide water service.

"I don't have a library card, I don't have medical insurance," he said. "It's unclear what I would lose."

Trek to this country

Jeff Passel, an immigration expert with the Washington-based Urban Institute, said immigrants make the trek to this county to work, not to seek public benefits.

Sen. Pete Rios, D-Hayden, who opposes the measure, said that if voters endorse Protect Arizona Now, he expect the courts to weigh in on it.

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