Renee Loth

Cooler heads on illegals

By Renee Loth
June 26, 2010

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FEW WOULD say that the tide is turning in the rancorous debate on immigration, but could it be that a sense of proportion is returning? In Massachusetts, some of the more extreme crackdowns on individuals caught in the nation’s tangled immigration laws are getting a second look. And the most onerous provisions in a state budget amendment targeting illegal immigrants — and the businesses that might employ them — were stripped out this week in a conference committee.

Before enraged citizens pillory legislators for “caving’’ on the immigration measures, they should review the facts. It’s actually good news that cooler heads prevailed in the conference committee, because both business and government would have been living with the consequences of the hastily-adopted amendment for a long time.

Late last month, spooked by a Suffolk University poll, the Senate reversed an earlier vote essentially codifying rules that bar illegal immigrants from receiving most state benefits. Instead, it adopted a far more sweeping amendment pushed by Senate Republicans. There were panicky caucus meetings and fast-gavel approvals of the 22-page amendment. Some members complained they had not had sufficient time to read it. Others said they disliked some provisions but wanted to show “toughness’’ on the issue.

The Suffolk poll found a thumping 84 percent of respondents agreed that the Legislature should “force individuals to provide proof of citizenship or legal residency if they seek state benefits.’’ It’s too bad the poll didn’t also ask a few questions of fact, since it almost surely would have revealed a depth of ignorance among voters about current law. For example: Are illegal immigrants eligible for food stamps, welfare, health benefits, or in-state tuition rates in Massachusetts? (No.) Or, do illegal immigrants generally pay more in taxes than they use in government services? (Yes.)

Details, details. In its amendment, the Senate embraced an odd mix of burdensome mandate and ineffectual duplication. The measure would have set up a snitcher’s hotline within the attorney general’s office, and required the AG to investigate every tip about employers hiring illegal immigrants. Of course, this legislative intrusion into the executive branch provided no funding for the new legal and police work.

The amendment also would have required any company seeking a government contract (including from local cities and towns) to verify the immigration status of every one of its employees — even if they wouldn’t be working on that contract. The provision required use of a verification system that is costly, burdensome, and fraught with error. And it conflicted with the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which explicitly bars states from penalizing employers for hiring illegal immigrants. Even the US Chamber of Commerce, hardly a bleeding heart group, is suing the state of Arizona over a similar provision.

Happily, this lawsuit-in-the-making was also removed in the conference committee. What was included — and what will have the force of law after the budget is signed — are current agency practices in the departments of Transitional Assistance (welfare), Health and Human Services (Medicaid) and Unemployment Assistance. The agencies also are required to pursue cases of attempted fraud and report findings to the Legislature and governor.

Meanwhile, several recent cases have put a human face on the immigration issue. From the brilliant Harvard student who was illegally brought into the country by his mother at age 4, to the Homeland Security officer who faces five years in prison for hiring an undocumented cleaning lady, to the married couple who endured a forced separation of three years because immigration laws don’t recognize same-sex marriage, these cases make fair-minded people pause and consider. Each case is unique, but they all challenge the stereotype of invading hordes of criminal illegal immigrants depicted by opponents.

In sticking mostly to budget language that clarifies or reinforces existing rules, Massachusetts will be spared costly lawsuits — and Governor Patrick may be spared a politically risky veto. The state budget confirms what the US Supreme Court has found: that immigration law is the purview of the federal government. Now if only Congress could find a way to cool the rhetoric and debate the facts.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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