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Senate budget debates heat up

Bolster rules on illegal immigrants

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / May 27, 2010

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The state Senate staked out a middle ground yesterday in the highly charged debate over illegal immigration, passing what Democratic members said was the first of several budget-related measures to strengthen rules barring illegal immigrants from receiving state services.

The budget amendment, which passed on a 32-6 vote, mostly on party lines, would codify into law an existing requirement that people receiving welfare and unemployment benefits be legal residents. The measure allowed senators to avoid a vote on a more comprehensive Republican proposal that would have required a signed affidavit verifying residency for all state services.

The debate over illegal immigrants and state services has been mostly about tone. Senate leaders said that most state agencies already screen applicants to make sure they are legal residents before deeming them eligible, with a few exceptions, including state-subsidized housing, where courts have ruled immigration status cannot be asked about. But with polls showing overwhelming support for tough measures against illegal immigrants, yesterday’s Senate debate indicated that both parties are increasingly eager to prove they are serious about preventing illegal immigrants from using tax dollars.

It was the liveliest part of the Senate’s first day of deliberations over its spending plan for the next fiscal year. In addition to taking up spending items among hundreds of amendments, senators made a few key policy decisions yesterday.

The Senate passed a measure that would give the state’s top administrative judge more power to regulate the Probation Department, an issue that emerged after the Globe Spotlight Team this week chronicled widespread patronage hiring and lax spending controls at the agency. The amendment, which passed unanimously, would give the judiciary complete control of the department’s budget and would limit the head of probation to a five-year term, potentially setting up a battle with the House.

“It ought not take an expose from the papers,’’ said Senator Michael R. Knapik, a Westfield Republican.

Another amendment that passed yesterday requires corporations that spend money on political ads to disclose their involvement in the ads, a reaction to a US Supreme Court decision that struck down limits on corporate campaign spending.

The House, which last month narrowly rejected its own measure to exclude illegal immigrants from state services, has already passed its own version of the budget, and the two chambers will have to negotiate their differences before it goes to Governor Deval Patrick.

The immigration measure that passed the Senate allowed even many Democrats to say that they, like Republicans, wanted to crack down on illegal immigration, while more liberal senators could say they were simply reinforcing existing practices without demonizing anyone. Republicans called the Democratic measure a “poison pill,’’ but said they were eager to see if the final product followed through on promises to address all potential benefit categories.

The immigration debate was framed early in the day, when three Democratic senators held a press conference with immigrant advocacy groups, opposing the Republican amendment. State House News Service reported that one advocate, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, Derrek Shulman, warned that the language of neo-Nazis and white supremacists had begun seeping into public discourse on the issue.

Republican senators were furious, taking the allegation personally, and called on Senate leaders to condemn the statements, which they did.

Republican leader Richard R. Tisei, a candidate for lieutenant governor, said people “outside this little cocoon that we all live in, the real world,’’ are concerned about the issue and not because they are being “mean-spirited.’’

A Suffolk University/7 News poll released last night found that 84 percent of the voters want a measure requiring proof of citizenship for state services.

Senate Democrats said they opposed a requirement that recipients of services show an affidavit or driver’s license, saying it would cost state agencies hundreds of thousands of dollars each and would limit access for older residents who lack a license and may have trouble getting an affidavit.

State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Boston Democrat who stood with immigrant rights advocates, called the Republican approach redundant and said it falsely implied the benefits problem is widespread.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.

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