Fighting a Community's Fear with Hard Information
Pastors, community activists and immigrant rights groups are trying to mitigate fears caused by a new Arizona law that forces state employees to report undocumented immigrants asking for federal and state benefits.
Last Wednesday, the Arizona Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit asking for a stay on the law’s implementation filed by the Arizona League of Cities and Towns. The suit questioned the way the law was created. In the next two weeks, the association will decide whether or not to file the challenge again in a lower court.
But another court challenge might be in the works.
“MALDEF (the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund) and I are ready to file a lawsuit in the event there’s a denial of benefits that shouldn’t have been denied, or a prosecution of an employee who shouldn’t have been prosecuted,” said civil rights attorney Daniel Ortega.
HB 2008 took effect Nov. 24 and requires state employees to file a report with immigration authorities when they find out someone applying for a benefit is in the country illegally. Employees could face up to four months in prison for failure to report.
"We're going to continue enforcing state and federal law like we've been doing," said Department of Economic Security (DES) spokesperson Steve Meissner. "Failure to produce documents is not admission that you're in the country illegally."
DES administers several of the benefits impacted including food stamps and health care insurance. While Meissner said the new law doesn’t change much, applicants will now have to sign a sworn statement that the documents they provide are true.
If applicants say that they are in the country illegally or provide evidence to that effect, state employee will have to file a report with the Office of Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE).
Other agencies like the Arizona Department of Administration have asked for a legal opinion on the matter from the Attorney General’s office.
The new law, however, does not affect access to emergency health care, police or firefighters.
Carlos Galindo, host of a Spanish radio show on Radio KASA, is using his talk show to provide accurate information about the new requirements.
“We’re going to educate people, because they need to know they have rights,” said Galindo. He is trying to send a clear message that U.S. children are entitled to benefits regardless of the status of their parents; and people can still apply for their U.S. children without having to reveal anything about their own immigration status.
Magdalena Schwartz, a pastor at the Disciples of the Kingdom Free United Methodist church, says she has been receiving non-stop calls from immigrant families who are afraid to take their children to doctor’s appointments. She worries that the policy will have the greatest impact on American children, whose parents are afraid to apply for basic things like health care insurance, food stamps or even immunizations for fear of being reported to ICE.
“We are trying to help people by giving them the right information so their children are safe,” said Schwartz.
Among them is Jazmin, a 24-year-old undocumented woman who is afraid of taking her one-year-old to the doctor. Jazmin, a victim of domestic violence, is also trying to apply for a special visa to adjust her status but feels trapped.
“This benefits are not for me, they are for my children,” said Jazmin, who was able to get help from a local church.
Meanwhile, supporters of the new law are skeptical of claims that it is creating unnecessary fear among immigrants.
“I don’t believe that rhetoric. That’s what they always said,” says Valerie Roller, a member of Riders U.S.A., a local organization that opposes the legalization of undocumented immigrants. “But the emergency rooms empty for a while and they’re filled again,” said Roller, who does not believe the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants should be entitled to citizenship.
Supporters of the bill argue it follows the will of Arizona voters who in 2004 approved Proposition 200, aimed at denying public benefits to undocumented immigrants. The impact of that initiative was limited to five programs by an Attorney General’s decision.
“Nothing changed, this is what the voters wanted,” Republican Rep. Steve Montenegro said. “We’re going through difficult economic moments in Arizona. We’re having to cut from so many different areas. It’s only correct to make sure that people that apply and receive benefits are qualified to do so,” he said.
Montenegro says he has looked into concerns that the new law may affect the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens.
“It is not aimed to affect the parent if they are applying for the child, unless the parent is aiming to receive the benefit,” said the representative who voted in favor of the law.