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Immigrant services: will the feds pay up?

The federal government has a generous immigration policy, but the states, it turns out, are the ones who pay the costs.

A high-profile lobbying effort by big-state governors has put the spotlight on an issue over which legislators and others have been toiling in relative darkness for years: the cost to state and local governments of serving immigrants and their families.

Led by California Governor Pete Wilson, chief executives struggling to balance their state budgets are pressing harder than ever this year for full reimbursement of the federally mandated costs of serving the immigrant population.

The effort is attracting widespread publicity and may succeed in prying more federal dollars out of Washington. Yet it also is ruffling some feathers among legislators and others who have been working not only to gain the added revenues but to restructure the entire immigrant and refugee services program. Some Democrats in Congress also fear that Wilson, a Republican known for heavy-handed partisanship, is seeking to shift the blame for California's chronic budget shortfalls to the federal government and the newly minted Clinton administration.

"We always welcome the involvement of governors," said Sheri Steisel, an NCSL lobbyist in Washington. But she added: "State legislators, particularly those from California, Texas, Florida and New York, have been out there in front on this issue, trying to get more funding for newcomers. For 10 years, five organizations have been working in a loosely organized and now formal coalition to look at the issues of impact assistance for state and local governments."

Wilson insists that his motives are honorable. And he has joined hands with the California Legislature and the state's huge congressional delegation--both dominated by Democrats--in a rare show of unity that all concerned hope will fill a major hole in the 1993-94 budget of the nation's largest state. If they succeed, they undoubtedly will generate increased aid to other states that have similar concerns.

California is by no means the only state with a budget burdened by the cost of serving immigrants. But as the state with more legal and illegal newcomers than any other, its budget writers can cite dramatic evidence to show the fiscal impact federal immigration policy can have on state and local governments.

More than one-third of California's explosive population growth in the 1980s was attributed to foreign immigration, and more than one in five of the state's 31 million people were born in another country. According to the state Department of Finance, California currently attracts a third of the legal foreign immigrants coming into the United States and more than half of undocumented immigrants. Between 1990 and 2000, it is estimated that foreign immigrants will account for nearly half of the expected population growth.

While the vast majority of these newcomers participate in the state's labor force, those who do not are overwhelming the state's capacity to provide health, education and social services. Estimates show that the total annual cost of these services is nearly $6 billion.

The problem, say Californians and lawmakers in other states, is that the federal government sets immigration policy but has reneged on its responsibility--and pledge--to help state and local governments cope with the results of that policy.

The federal Refugee Act of 1980, for example, requires states to provide needy refugees with access to assistance programs, including AFDC, SSI/SSP and Medicaid. At first, Washington pledged to provide funding to cover the non-federal costs of these programs for the first 36 months a refugee is in the country. But that promise dwindled to nothing over a period of years. A companion program provides just eight months of coverage and might drop still further this year.

In 1986, Congress adopted the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), offering amnesty to immigrants who had resided illegally in the United States since before January 1982. The act required states to provide full Medicaid benefits to legalized immigrants. The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1986 required states to provide Medicaid coverage for emergency care and for labor and delivery services to all undocumented residents who are otherwise income eligible. IRCA authorized expenditures of $4 billion to reimburse states for these costs, but the actual appropriations have been only a fraction of that amount.

"Refugee and immigration policy is strictly a federal responsibility, and the federal government has an obligation to pay the costs," Wilson said in a speech at the recent state economic summit put on by California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. "When they shirk that responsibility, they impose an 'immigration tax' on states that have more than their share of refugees and immigrants."

The Californians are seeking nearly $1.5 billion from the Clinton administration and Congress to help plug an $8 billion hole in the next budget, which the state constitution requires the Legislature to pass no later than June 15. The money includes:

* Full funding of the State Legalization Impact Assistance Grants (SLIAG).

* Full federal funding for the cost of refugee resettlement.

* 100 percent federal funding for the cost of AFDC grants and Medicaid provided to citizen children of undocumented parents.

* 100 percent federal funding for the cost of Medicaid provided to legalized and undocumented immigrants.

* Full federal funding for the cost of incarcerating undocumented immigrants in state prisons.

Wilson and the governors of Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois signed a joint letter to President Clinton in January demanding "immediate action to provide all reimbursement owed to the states." Because the governors--potential presidents all--generally attract more media coverage than legislators, the ruckus at the National Governors' Association meeting generated considerable publicity. But the NGA is just one member in a five-group coalition that has been plugging away at this issue for many years. The other members of the State and Local Coalition on Immigration include the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Association of Counties, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the American Public Welfare Association.

The coalition is working with a $400,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to improve intergovernmental coordination and communication among those involved in immigration issues. The groups are seeking to develop comprehensive data on state and local roles in immigrant policy and the impact of immigrants on communities.

The coalition has published a 32-page state and local policymakers' guide to immigration and immigrant policy, that lays out the history of U.S. immigration policy, describes the current state of affairs and highlights issues that will be addressed in the 1990s.

"The quantity and diversity of the new immigrants are creating new fiscal and social challenges for state and local governments," the guide concludes. "The lack of a comprehensive federal policy is compelling state and local governments to create immigrant policy, but without adequate resources."

Members of the coalition groups have long been seeking to influence Congress and the White House on this issue.

In 1991, for example, Florida Senator Ron Silver testified on behalf of NCSL before a House Judiciary subcommittee considering reauthorization of the Refugee Act. Silver's Dade County (Miami) district has been inundated by the flood of Cuban and Haitian refugees who have rushed to south Florida to escape persecution in their own countries.

"The Refugee Act represents a commitment to the states by the federal government to pay for the services for which it is responsible in statute and in the U.S. Constitution," Silver told the committee. "The federal government has not lived up to its part of this agreement, sacrificing effective domestic resettlement while granting greater admissions numbers. Don't ask us at the state level to make up the difference. We can't. If we cannot fund social services for our citizens, we should not be expected to add a line item for refugee programs."

More recently, St. Paul Mayor James Scheibel and Arizona Representative Art Hamilton, president of NCSL, wrote letters to Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala complaining about the administration's proposed reduction to the Refugee Cash and Medical Assistance Program. A new regulation would reduce the eligibility for CMA, which once was pegged at 36 months, from the current eight months to just five.

"State lawmakers believe that the federal government has a responsibility to fund the consequences of its decision making," Hamilton wrote. "In the refugee program, this has not been the case. We believe this reduction of benefits is fiscally unnecessary, harmful to refugees who will be ineligible for other benefits and will further burden state and local governments."

Given that history of activity on the immigration issue, the Wilson-led publicity gambit was not universally well received.

California Assemblyman Tom Bates, chairman of the Assembly's Human Services Committee, said members of Congress feared the Wilson effort was a "set-up" because they believe that no more than half of the governor's request can realistically be met.

"They were being asked to do something impossible, and Wilson knew that," Bates said. The suspicion was that Wilson, who has threatened to cut other health and social service programs if he does not get the federal money, would blame the problem on Congress and the Clinton administration. In addition, Bates said, there was some resentment among those who had worked hard on this issue that Wilson was something of a Johnny-come-lately. As a U.S. senator for eight years under Republican presidents and governor for two years when fellow Republican George Bush was in the White House, Wilson never made such noise about the immigration issue.

"Where was he the last two years when his people were in there?" Bates asked. "He wasn't banging down the doors in Washington at that point. Suddenly there are Democrats in there and they're being set up to fail."

President Clinton, in his "Vision for Change in America," made a commitment to address the problem. "The administration will design a program to offset the impact of refugees and undocumented residents on the budgets of state and local governments, including those in California, Texas and Florida," the report said.

Yet four powerful California lawmakers--Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representatives Henry A. Waxman, Robert T. Matsui and Vic Fazio--have told Wilson in two separate letters that he is likely to obtain, at best, only half of the money he is seeking. The rest, they said, is unlikely because it calls for Congress not only to fulfill the current federal commitment but to expand upon it, which is unrealistic given the focus on reducing the deficit.

St. Paul Mayor Scheibel agreed that it is going to be difficult to win all the funds owed to state and local governments.

"Immigrants don't really have a voice in our system," he said. "They aren't citizens. They don't vote, and they aren't an active lobbying voice in the Capitol. It's going to be a hard battle to get all the funds that are needed."

Daniel M. Weintraub is a staff writer in the Sacramento Bureau of the Los Angeles Times. A State and Local Policymaker's Guide to Immigration and Immigrant Policy, mentioned in this story, can be purchased through NCSL's marketing department (303) 830-2200.
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Title Annotation:governors seek federal reimbursement of immigrant services costs
Author:Weintraub, Daniel M.
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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