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Va. Lawmakers Hit a Nerve With Immigrant Bills

Efforts to Curtail Access to Services by Those Here Illegally Stimulate Heated Election-Year Debate

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2005; Page B01

RICHMOND, Feb. 25 -- Virginia lawmakers are concluding an aggressive effort to limit the access of illegal immigrants to Medicaid, public assistance and other benefits, which sparked an intense debate over their impact on the state's economy and services.

Bills that would have limited access to workers' compensation benefits and to public colleges passed the House of Delegates but were defeated in the Senate.

_____Virginia Government_____
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However, the General Assembly is nearing final passage of measures that would restrict access to state and local public health care insurance and welfare. Companion bills passed by the House and Senate are before a conference committee to iron out minor differences before sending the legislation to Gov. Mark R. Warner (D).

The governor would not comment on whether he would sign the bills.

The health care restrictions received strong bipartisan support in both chambers, but they inspired an emotional debate.

"What part of illegal don't they understand? The people are not supposed to be here," said House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford).

Opponents said that immigrants are part of the fabric of Virginia's economy and that the state has a responsibility to ensure basic health care. They also said it would put an undue burden on legal residents attempting to gather documents for public services.

"The only thing this really does is place an unnecessary and substantial burden on legal United States citizens," Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria) said in an interview. "And those people are our constituents."

Several dozen states have moved to tighten the access to local and state public assistance and Medicaid to illegal immigrants. Federal law bars illegal immigrants from receiving federal services, but some states and localities offer benefits for children and some adults. Neither Maryland nor the District offers Medicaid or other public services to adult illegal immigrants, officials said.

Supporters of the Virginia measures say that the commonwealth should reserve its resources for its legal residents and that it must protect access to higher education, Medicaid, welfare and other benefits guaranteed by the state Constitution.

"Clearly, this is an issue of state resources and making sure that they go to the appropriate people," said Sen. Emmett W. Hanger (R-Augusta), sponsor of Senate Bill 1143, which would restrict illegal immigrants from receiving Medicaid. "Our services and benefits should be focused and reserved for our citizens."

The Center for Immigration Studies, a research group in Washington, estimates that Virginia had 176,000 illegal immigrants in 2004, roughly a tripling of that population since 1996. The center found that nine states had a larger population of illegal immigrants than Virginia did.

But even supporters of the restrictions said no specific data exist on how much illegal immigrants cost the state through public assistance payments or other programs. In addition, there are no figures on how much Virginia businesses are paying in workers' compensation claims for illegal immigrants.

That impelled opponents to say that support for the bills was motivated less by economics and more by politics. All 100 seats of the House of Delegates are up for election Nov. 8.

"I see a pattern here with all this stuff," said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). "And it's all about November."

Such measures "mainly reflect political frustrations," said Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies. "The benefit is that they send a message . . . but they are not going to save taxpayers a lot of money. The only thing that would save them money is enforcing" federal immigration laws.

The Senate and House bills would not prevent illegal immigrants from receiving emergency medical care or disaster relief, but they would deny public retirement benefits and shares in government contracts.

The legislation would mandate that people seeking public benefits prove their legal status to state or local officials by producing the same documents used to obtain a driver's license. Applicants now simply check a box affirming that they are legal residents.

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