By Charles Breitrose
Opponents liken the state Senate measure to prevent illegal immigrants from tapping in to state services to the harsh law adopted recently in Arizona, but supporters insist it’s necessary to save money by stopping abuse of the system.
Republicans sponsored the budget amendment, titled Fair Employment and Security, which the Senate approved 28-10. The measure must still be worked out in conference committee with the House.
State Sen. Richard Moore, D-Uxbridge, who voted for the measure, said yesterday the amendment addresses concerns about undocumented residents getting state assistance.
“Anywhere where people seek government services, it will simply require them to be able to require legal identification to show they are here legally,” Moore said. “Anyone who is going to receive a benefit or driver’s license has to be in compliance with what the law requires.”
The amendment includes steps barring contractors from public projects if they violate federal law on employing illegal immigrants, requires state contractors to verify employee citizenship status, creates new penalties for falsifying state IDs and driver’s licenses, and prevents those legally eligible for public housing from being displaced by illegal residents.
The amendment also bans access to lower in-state tuition rates at state colleges for illegal immigrants.
Don Siriani, chief of staff for state Sen. Susan Fargo, D-Lincoln, said the poor economy means the state should watch how every dollar is spent. Fargo voted for the measure.
“(The amendment) has everything to do with making certain that the very limited state resources the taxpayers give for the operation of the state, that they are spent wisely,” Siriani said.
The amendment will actually increase expenses to state and local agencies, argues Sen. James Eldridge, D-Acton, who voted against the bill.
“We are cutting services now, cutting for education, protecting the environment and health care,” Eldridge said. “Yet we just passed language that will increase costs for agencies like the Division of Unemployment, Division of Transitional Services and public housing authorities across the commonwealth.”
Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said she thinks the amendment mostly mirrors federal statutes, and worries it will have more effect on immigrants who are here legally.
“Though it as portrayed as going after undocumented residents our concern is this will affect those who are eligible for benefits,” Millona said. “It makes it harder for naturalized citizens to get benefits because undocumented residents are already barred.”
She anticipates the requirement to present proof of residency will increase costs to state agencies. Currently, people need to have just a valid Social Security number, which is checked on a federal database, Millona said.
“This will set up a costly bureaucratic system where (agencies) have to physically view, physically capture and physically store proof of citizenship,” Millona said. “Instead of having an automated system, they will have to open more than one office and hire a lot of staff.”
Eldridge said the proposals in the amendment were too close for comfort to the law recently passed in Arizona. Arizona’s law – which allows local police to ask for identification from anyone they suspect might be an illegal immigrant – has drawn loud protests from immigration rights groups and others around the country.
“I was very surprised and disappointed at how the amendment we passed (Thursday) was approaching what passed in Arizona,” Eldridge said.
The Massachusetts measure is different, Moore said, but it stems from the same frustrations.
“I don’t think it’s quite the same,” Moore said. “In Arizona, they are doing the same thing. They want the laws enforced in the absence of federal action, enforcement of both federal and state law. They are a border state and probably have more immigrants to deal with. I think they feel frustrated as well.”
The Massachusetts Legislature had to weigh in on the immigration issue because Congress has not, Moore said.
“The federal government has ultimate authority,” Moore said. “They need to meet their responsibility, address the issue on illegal immigration at the federal level. They haven’t done anything that is helpful.”
Many parts of the amendment bother Millona, but she pointed to one that she believes threatens personal privacy.
“One is the part of the bill that provides for a 1-800 number (to report illegal immigrants). This bill, erodes privacy and civil liberties for all,” Millona said. “Anyone from anywhere can report a person is undocumented and automatically an investigation begins about you, your immigration status. It gives people with a personal score a means to target people.”
The steps proposed in the amendment will not take effect until the Senate and House can agree on a single bill. A similar proposal lost in the House last month.
House and Senate leaders will try to hash out an agreement before the July 1 deadline.
Gov. Deval Patrick has not taken a firm stance on the amendment, though he said through press secretary Juan Martinez yesterday that the ban on in-state tuition for longtime state residents who are not in the country legally is unfair.
Patrick will wait and see what happens with the bill in conference committee before making a judgment, Martinez said.