Friday, February 2, 2007

Illegal immigrant parents facing aid cut

Illegal immigrant parents facing aid cut
Sunday, January 21, 2007
By: WILLIAM FINN BENNETT - North County Times (San Diego, CA)

NORTH COUNTY ---- The low-income illegal-immigrant parents of an estimated 36,000 children in California would lose cash assistance on July 1 if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget is approved, a spokesman for the state Department of Social Services said Friday.

Cutting off those payments would save Golden State taxpayers $144 million in the fiscal year starting July 1 as the $491 monthly payments end, Michael Weston said.

The proposal is the latest in a series of possible changes to immigration policies in California, a focal point in the continuing national debate over the country's immigration policies.

Under current rules, the parents are eligible for the money until their U.S.-born children reach age 18, Weston said. But with the changes proposed by the governor, the payments would be stopped when families have received the money for five years.

State officials estimate that would mean 36,000 of the 90,000 children whose families now receive the benefit would be at the 60-month threshold by July.

The money is allocated by county agencies through a debit card issued to parents "for need uses (for the children), but we can't track how they are used," said Tom Christensen, a spokesman for the San Diego County Department of Health and Human Services.

About $500 million is now spent each year on providing the assistance, according to state officials.

Mike Herald, a spokesman for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said Friday that California Department of Social Services officials have told him that eventually, almost every illegal immigrant family now receiving the benefit would see it end.

"If we cut off all assistance, kids are going to suffer," he said.

The center is an advocate for the rights of low-income Californians in health, housing and public assistance.

U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Escondido, said he thinks the governor is moving in the right direction.

"At no time should an illegal alien get (money) from the government," Bilbray said in an interview Friday.

Continuing to pay illegal immigrants the costs of raising their children simply serves to attract other immigrants to the U.S., he said.

"It tells the world that we really want illegal immigration, that we are willing to pay for it," he said.

The 50th Congressional District representative proposed a radical solution to advocates' concerns about the effect of the cuts. The answer, he shot back, is for illegal immigrant parents to give up their child by finding a legal U.S. resident to take over his or her guardianship.

Local costs in tens of millions

About 4,000 payments were made in San Diego County in December, at a cost of nearly $2 million, said Christiansen.

Officials with the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services said Thursday that each year, the agency makes payments to illegal immigrant parents for an average of 3,015 children who are U.S. citizens, at an annual cost of about $15 million.

The agency's assistant director, Susan Lowe, said Thursday that 46 percent of that taxpayer money comes from the federal government and the rest from state and local governments.

Reaction varies

An immigrant advocate said that cutting off the payments after 60 months would be shortsighted and inhumane.

If California cuts off the funding to those children after five years of benefits, "we are making the child the scapegoat for whatever immigration issues that we, as adults, have not been able to resolve," said Arcela Nunez-Alvarez, associate director of the National Latino Research Center at Cal State San Marcos. "The kids will be paying the consequences."

Mike Spencer, a Vista resident and founder of an anti-illegal immigration group called the Vista Citizens Brigade, said Thursday that he had mixed feelings about the issue.

"I hate to be wishy-washy," he said. But "in the morning, I might say, 'special programs are needed for these kids,' and in the evening I might say, 'we have to send them all back ---- lock, stock and barrel.' "

One thing is for sure, Spencer said: The costs of illegal immigration to the taxpayer "are the most egregious financial attack on us citizens that I can imagine.

"As you peel back the layers, it just goes on and on ----- we pick up the costs of the pregnancies and then pick up the cost of welfare because they are now a citizen and eligible for all that stuff," Spencer said.

The taxpayer is funding the prenatal care and the labor and delivery costs of many of the illegal immigrant parents, according to a state Medi-Cal report. In 2004, for example, more than 105,000 Medi-Cal-funded births in the state were paid for by the taxpayer at a cost of more than $400 million, according to the report issued last spring. In San Diego County, the number of such births that year was 5,814, or 40.5 percent of all Medi-Cal-funded births in the county, at a cost of about $22 million.

Herald said the children of illegal immigrants wouldn't be the only ones to lose the state support. Legal immigrants who are not permitted to work in the United States or whose immigration status doesn't allow them to receive public benefits would also see the payments for their children end.

He said such a move could easily end up backfiring, because families who are no longer able to care for their children could be forced to give them up. The children, he said, would end up in foster care.

"And foster care is a hell of a lot more expensive than giving kids $500 a month," Herald said.

He said that under the terms of a bipartisan deal worked out between then-Gov. Pete Wilson and the Legislature in 1997, the state committed itself to making sure that children were taken care of regardless of what their parents were doing.

"What the governor has proposed undoes that sacred commitment," Herald said.

Contact staff writer William Finn Bennett at (760) 740-5426 or