Senate GOP seeks limits on access to benefits

Amendments aimed at illegal immigrants

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / May 25, 2010

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Senate Republicans are preparing to battle this week for controversial budget amendments that would limit illegal immigrants’ access to state benefits, just weeks after a similar measure failed narrowly in the House.

Republicans say the legislation will save money and reduce waiting lists for high-demand services, such as public housing. Democrats and immigrant advocates counter that the measures attack a problem that does not exist, since illegal immigrants are already ineligible for such services. Debate is expected to start tomorrow, and the senators could vote as early as that day.

“I don’t think it’s asking for a lot,’’ said Senate minority leader Richard R. Tisei, the main sponsor of the amendments, who is running for lieutenant governor with gubernatorial candidate Charles D. Baker. “In a time of limited resources, you can only do so much. We have to do first for the people who are here legally.’’

On Friday, the Republicans filed a Senate version of an amendment that nearly passed in the Democrat-controlled House in late April, only a year after it was easily defeated, a sign of a burst of new energy in the GOP since the January election of Republican Scott Brown to the US Senate and the passage in Arizona of the toughest immigration law in the country.

The measure, originally filed by Representative Jeffrey D. Perry in the House, would require that adults applying for public benefits supply proof of legal residence, such as a state driver’s license. Otherwise, they must produce an affidavit saying they are here legally and be checked through the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlement program, or SAVE.

The Senate Republicans also filed separate measures barring illegal immigrants from receiving state aid for higher education, health and human services, and public housing. Tisei said they hoped to get at least one of the measures through the Legislature.

Democrats, who were taken aback in April by the close vote over Perry’s amendment, scrambled this week to prepare for a heated debate. They said that state agencies already run checks on immigrants for many public services, and that the measures would create a needless bureaucracy that could cost millions.

“I think that we will have to duke it out,’’ said Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, Democrat of Boston. “But I think that the facts are 100 percent on our side on this one. This is something that the state already does.’’

Senator James B. Eldridge, Democrat of Acton, said the measures could also create new delays for the elderly and others who do not carry driver’s licenses or other traditional forms of identification.

“It’s going to end up not only costing the state a lot of money but hurting a lot of legal residents and elderly people, as well,’’ he said.

Democrats and others who oppose the measures are holding up Colorado, the inspiration for Perry’s measure, as an example of how the measures can go wrong. In 2006, Colorado passed a bill restricting immigrants’ access to public services that gained national attention as being one of the most stringent in the country.

But less than a year later, officials found that the state spent more than $2 million and did not save money, according to news reports and an analysis by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, a Boston based nonprofit that produced an analysis of Perry’s amendment this month.

Massachusetts lawmakers “should think very long and hard about the cost implications and the negative impact on US citizens,’’ said Patricia Baker, a senior policy analyst with the institute.

The state Department of Transitional Assistance and the Division of Unemployment Assistance are already enrolled in the SAVE program and run thousands of checks every year, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that administers the program.

But Republicans say they are taking up an issue Democrats have long ignored, even as thousands of people are on waiting lists for public housing and other services. Republicans say they have tried to get the Democrats to study the scope of the issue in the past, without success.

“We should not be enfranchising people who are in the country illegally with the benefits that others worked hard to get and to be eligible for,’’ said Senator Bruce E. Tarr, Republican of Gloucester.

Tisei said he was confident that the measures would save the state money if they pass, by barring illegal immigrants from public benefits. But he said the state should invest in the system.

“It’s money well spent,’’ he said. “It’s certainly not going to break the budget, and the savings that will be reaped from it will more than make up for whatever the cost is.’’

The vast majority of immigrants in Massachusetts are in the country legally, but about 1 in 5 immigrants, or 190,000, are here illegally.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @mariasacchetti.

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