By Matt Murphy, firstname.lastname@example.org Updated: 05/27/2010 06:36:17 AM EDT
BOSTON — State senators yesterday shot down a proposal to require all applicants for public benefits to submit to background checks, but passed a more targeted law focused on welfare and unemployment benefits.
The debate was colored by comments made early in the morning by the head of the Anti-Defamation League that outraged senators, who were accused of using inflammatory language to promote legislation aimed at curbing benefits, such as food stamps and public housing, to undocumented immigrants.
Derrek Shulman, executive director of the New England Anti-Defamation League, described the rhetoric being used in the debate over illegal immigration in Massachusetts and around the country as bordering on language used by “racists, neo-Nazis and white supremacists.”
The remarks drew a strong condemnation from Senate President Therese Murray and Sen. Steve Panagiotakos, D-Lowell, who said the comments “have no place in our conversation.”
The Senate yesterday rejected an amendment to the budget that would have required all people applying for state-funded public benefits tied to housing, education and social services to provide proof of citizenship or legal residency. Democratic leaders cited the cost of requiring background checks and the protections already in place at many state agencies to prevent those living here illegally from receiving aid.
A similar proposal was defeated in the House last month when lawmakers voted to send the amendment offered by Rep. Jeff Perry, R-Sandwich, to a study.
Instead, the Senate passed, 32-6, a more limited measure that instructs the state Department of Unemployment Assistance and the Department of Transitional Assistance to require applicants to produce proof of citizenship.
Noncitizens living in the country legally are required to provide documentation from the Department of Homeland Security or be subjected to a background check through the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements program, or SAVE.
The new laws do little more than codify what many state agencies, including MassHealth, already do for applicants to programs that receive federal money, according to lawmakers. The measure stops short of restricting access to state subsidized public housing, but not federal Section 8 rental housing or food stamps.
“The underlying amendment would be expensive and require more paperwork,” Panagiotakos said. “Our amendment isn’t just tough. It’s smart on fraud.”
The state cites a 1977 federal court case against the city of Waltham that prohibited local housing authorities from denying eligibility for housing to a person because he or she is not a citizen. Though the case specifically references noncitizens living in the United States legally, the state has since stopped verifying applicants’ immigration status.
Emotions in the Senate peaked even before debate began.
At a morning press conference, Sens. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, and Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, gathered immigrant advocates at the Statehouse to lobby against the series of Republican-sponsored amendments targeting benefits to illegal immigrants.
“It’s a very expensive solution in search of a problem,” Eldridge said.
He said requiring background checks — $6 apiece through the Department of Homeland Security — will cost millions of dollars and create delays for legal residents applying for benefits such as food stamps.
Republican advocates have been unable to quantify how much the state could save. Eldridge pointed to a similar law passed in Colorado that ended up costing that state an additional $2 million in one year, and produced little to no savings by eliminating public benefits for undocumented immigrants.