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Arizona Republicans want to deny public benefits to asylum seekers

Backed by Republican lawmakers including state Rep. Tim Dunn of Yuma, far right, Arizona House Speaker Ben Toma answers questions Monday on his proposal to deny benefits to those not here legally and impose new penalties on the employers who knowingly hire them.
Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer
Backed by Republican lawmakers including state Rep. Tim Dunn of Yuma, far right, Arizona House Speaker Ben Toma answers questions Monday on his proposal to deny benefits to those not here legally and impose new penalties on the employers who knowingly hire them.

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- Republican lawmakers took the first steps Monday to making it more difficult for those who have crossed the border illegally to get public benefits.
And that includes those who are seeking asylum and have been allowed to remain for the time being by the federal government.
On a party-line vote, members of the House Appropriations Committee tightened up existing statutes that already require employers to use the federal E-Verify system to determine the immigration status of those they hire. That even includes $10,000 fines and possible prison terms.
That vote came over objections from Democrats who said that some industries in Arizona already were having trouble finding people to work, including agriculture and home construction.
House Speaker Ben Toma, who crafted the measure, was not impressed by those arguments.
"What about basic fairness for hardworking Arizonans that actually comply with the law?'' he asked. "How can they afford to compete under those circumstances.''
The Peoria Republican also brushed aside figures cited by Lena Avalos, speaking for Living United for Change in Arizona who said that all people, regardless of their legal status, pay taxes. She said that includes $213 million in sales taxes.
Instead, Toma cited figures saying that illegal immigration is costing Arizonans $2.3 billion a year, a figure he got from the Federation for American Immigration Reform which has the goal of seeking to reduce immigration levels overall, legal and otherwise. But the said he does not know what are the components of that figure and how much of that might be public education which federal courts have said must be offered to all children, regardless of their parents' legal status.
"Our border is being overrun by illegal aliens,'' Toma said. And one way to stop that, he said, is making it more difficult for those without documentation to get a job here.
State laws in effect since 2008 already require employers to use the federal E-Verify system to determine the legal status of applicants and workers. But Toma said there are too many loopholes in that law.
One provision in his HCR 2060 would make it a felony to "knowingly assist'' people in breaking the state's employment laws. And it would require the attorney general or county attorney to check complaints that companies are ignoring the law.
Natashia Townsend, testifying against the measure in the House Appropriations Committee, said this is about more than punishing employers. She cited the felony provisions for anyone who is found to have "obstructed'' the E-Verify program.
"Criminalizing those who are merely seeking a better life runs counter to the very principles of justice and fairness that should guide our legislative pursuits,'' Townsend told lawmakers.
But HCR 2060, which would go on the November ballot -- and bypass the need for approval by Gov. Katie Hobbs -- goes beyond employment.
The measure also would require state and local officials to use that same E-Verify system to determine the legal status of those seeking public benefits.
A 2004 voter-approved law already requires all state and local government to verify the identity of each applicant for benefits. Toma said that's not enough.
"People have used false identities,'' he said. Toma said that can be addressed with provisions in his measure to require public officials to use the E-Verify program.
Toma, who is a candidate for Congress in a crowded Republican primary, said state action is necessary.
"It's painfully clear at this point that our governor and our president are doing nothing about it,'' he said. But his sharpest comments were reserved for the federal government.
"They've actually caused the humanitarian crisis that is at the border at this point by having policies that incent people to come here and essentially invade,'' Toma said.
There is no question but that the border has been inundated by those crossing illegally. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports there were more than 242,000 encounters with border crossers in January, including more than 50,000 in the Tucson sector.
But what has changed is that those who enter the country immediately seek asylum. After initial processing, that allows them to remain until they get a hearing, something that may not be scheduled for years.
Toma said while the federal government may allow asylum seekers to remain, he does not believe they should be entitled to benefits.
"They want to go to other states and take advantage of them, by all means,'' Toma said of asylum seekers. "But anything that's being done by the state of Arizona would not be recognized until they are determined to be legal.''
Among the benefits that Toma said should be off limits is the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state's Medicare program.
Undocumented immigrants, however, do not qualify for full AHCCCS coverage. But the rules say they may qualify for emergency services.
Toma also wants to make unemployment coverage off limits.
Only thing is, the payments do not come from state dollars.
Instead, the system is set up as a form of insurance, with employers paying into a fund based on how often they fire or lay off workers without cause. The benefits come from that fund.
But Toma said he sees nothing wrong with denying payments to those people who have actually provided their services to an employer and have been let go for no fault of their own.
"If they worked in good faith but they know they're illegal, and especially if they've used forged documents and a forged identity in order to be able to get hired in the first place, I'm not sure you could say that is in good faith,'' he said.
Much of the opposition from Democrats was based on their conclusion that all of this is simply an extension of anti-immigrant policies enacted in 2010. It sought to deter illegal immigration through not just enforcement by local police but making it a state crime to seek work in Arizona without being in this country legally.
"We have to consider the precedent that this sets that puts people in danger,''' said Rep. Lorena Austin, D-Mesa said. "It allows people to think of our community as 'other.' ''
Austin said Arizona has moved beyond that.
And Rep. Nancy Gutierres, D-Tucson, who is a teacher, said this only exacerbates the fear that "mixed'' families of legal and undocumented people have to do things like go to the doctoreven those here legally afraid that their family members will be targeted.
"That is the type of fear that we do not want for our state,'' she said.
But Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix, said that in some ways the situation now is worse, saying the country is "at a moment of great crisis.''
"Arizona is not a sanctuary state,'' he said. "And this legislation ensures that it never will be.''
Toma has crafted his measure in a way to avoid some of the issues that arose more than a decade ago during the debate about what public benefits would be off limits. It spells out that only benefits that total more than $500 a year would be denied, leaving out having to debate such issues as whether local communities would have to verify the legal status of those to whom they provide library cards and bus passes.
He also is seeking to avoid the kind of lawsuit that was filed by employer groups and others the first time the state enacted the requirement to use E-Verify.
For example, it says the penalty would not apply in all circumstances where a company does not use the system. He said it may be that the employer knows the person and knows he or she is a citizen.
But he does seek to create an entirely new crime for those who refuse to use the system when an employer knows -- or has "reason to know'' -- that someone is not lawfully present. Toma denied, though, that language would lead to racial profiling, with companies running checks on those who do not appear to be citizens or lawful residents.
"The idea is that everyone who is working in Arizona should be working legally,'' he said.
There was no immediate response from the Arizona Chamber of Commerce to what Toma has proposed.
That wasn't the case more than a decade ago when the first laws mandating use of E-Verify were enacted. Business groups, employers and Hispanic rights advocates sued, contending the statute illegally infringes on the exclusive right of the federal government to control immigration.
But the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 2011 ruling, said nothing in the requirement to check the legal status of new workers conflicts with federal laws.
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