Government agencies in Arizona will be required later this year to take another step aimed at preventing illegal immigrants from getting government benefits.
Beginning Sept. 19, applicants for state-funded benefits must show documents proving they are in the country legally. It won’t suffice for them to say that their presence in the country is lawful.
The new requirement, signed into law last week by Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, is intended to help enforce two laws that cut off benefits to illegal immigrants.
Republican Rep. Russell Pearce of Mesa, a driving force behind both voter-approved laws, said he sought the proof requirement after some officials asked whether it was enough for applicants to simply sign a document saying they were in the country legally.
Even though he believes most officials want to enforce the law, Pearce said he wanted to make sure the public’s costs for illegal immigration are kept at a minimum.
“The burden is not on the government to prove you are not eligible,” Pearce said. “The burden is for you to prove that you are eligible.”
Voters overwhelmingly approved a law in November that bars illegal immigrants from getting cheaper in-state tuition, state-funded scholarships, fee waivers and other financial assistance at Arizona’s public universities and community colleges.
It also prohibits immigrants from attending adult education classes and receiving child care assistance provided by the state.
The law, however, doesn’t prevent illegal immigrants from attending college.
Another voter-approved immigration law, passed in 2004, required government agencies to verify the identity and eligibility of public benefit applicants.
Supporters of the laws said the restrictions were needed to reduce the costs of illegal immigration. Opponents say illegal border-crossers are being made scapegoats for the country’s failed immigration policies.
Several agencies said they were already requiring proof of lawful presence in the country before the new law was passed.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said students in adult education classes run by his agency were already required to prove their immigration status. A similar standard was recently imposed on the agency’s family literacy courses.
Liz Barker Alvarez, spokeswoman for the Department of Economic Security, which runs a child care assistant program, said the agency has required proof of citizenship since 1997.
“From a field perspective, nothing changed,” she said.
Arizona’s three public universities are using a federal database to verify the Social Security numbers and citizenship claims of students seeking the state-funded financial benefits, said Anne Barton, spokeswoman for the Arizona Board of Regents.
Students whose status isn’t verified aren’t eligible for the benefits, unless they provide documents proving they are in the country legally, Barton said.
“We have created a manageable process that has a minimal effect on students,” said Sharon Keeler, a spokeswoman for Arizona State University.
Roberto Reveles, past president of Somos America, a coalition of groups that has organized immigration protests in Phoenix, said the benefit restrictions and the new requirement are counterproductive because the government ought to encourage all people to become better trained and educated.
Reveles said the law may prompt some illegal immigrants to leave Arizona so they can find work in other states and that Arizona would be losing motivated and enterprising workers.
“They are going to go where their services are wanted and where they are not mistreated,” Reveles said.
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