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Many states take steps to broaden illegals' benefits
Published March 31, 2006


A flurry of immigration proposals that would cut services to undocumented workers are under consideration from the South to New England, but some of the most significant recent steps taken by state governments actually help illegal aliens.

So far this year, only one major crackdown has passed a state legislature: Georgia lawmakers last week approved what supporters claim would be the nation's toughest anti-illegal alien law, limiting state benefits such as non-emergency medical care and unemployment checks to those in the country legally.

But recent actions by law, executive order or court decision have extended benefits to illegal aliens in Illinois, New York and Washington state. Even when Arizona voters passed sweeping restrictions on illegal aliens in 2004, state leaders interpreted the law to scale back the effect.

"People talked tough, but they did some inclusionary things," said Michael Fix of the Migration Policy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

As Congress struggles with how to craft effective immigration policy, states are in the midst of their own version of the debate. Some of the tougher ideas this year:

• New Hampshire would fine businesses up to $2,500 if they hire workers not authorized to be in the country.

• Arizona would build a wall and spend $50 million on a radar system to track anyone who crosses over from Mexico.

• Georgia would have local police check the immigration status of everybody they arrest.

Over the past year, other policies have emerged that broaden illegal aliens' benefits, Mr. Fix said. Washington state and Illinois have made health care available to poor families regardless of immigration status. Court decisions in New York extended cash assistance for all the poor.

In all, state legislators this year have introduced 368 bills in 42 states tackling immigrant issues, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). The majority have sought to make daily life harder for illegal aliens by limiting access to government-provided services, though some aimed at stopping exploitation.

"There's a sense we've lost control of the borders," said Ann Morse, who tracks immigrant legislation at the NCSL. "States are caught in the crossfire between Congress and the public, showing ways they can respond to the problem."

In Arizona, state Rep. Russell Pearce has been a vocal and insistent proponent of laws and rules that would stem the flow of illegal aliens, pushing for a wall, a radar system and money so local law enforcement could jail the illegal aliens they catch.

"Enough is enough is enough," said Mr. Pearce, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "How can you come to this country and expect to have a right to free stuff? It's just like breaking into my house."

In New Hampshire, the state Senate targeted businesses that rely on illegal aliens, approving a measure this month to require companies to register their workers and prove they are legal, with fines for businesses that violate the law.

State Sen. Dick Green, a Republican sponsor, said that would provide hard numbers -- or also could make the state less hospitable to illegal aliens. "If that has a side effect of them going elsewhere, then other states are going to have to deal with it," he said. "Either is OK."