Immigrant rights advocates reacted with outrage Wednesday and threatened to legally challenge a new Costa Mesa policy that withholds city funds from groups that serve illegal aliens, a measure that one official predicted could change the way charitable organizations operate in Orange County.
A spokesman for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) said his group will study the new policy to determine if it discriminates against undocumented residents.
"This raises the false (assumption) that the undocumented are not entitled to services," said Francisco Garcia, director of MALDEF's immigrant's rights program. "The Constitution protects all persons whether they are documented or not. We will seriously look into this and assess whether a legal challenge is possible."
The City Council approved the unprecedented measure on a 3-2 vote early Tuesday and said it is aimed at discouraging the influx of illegal aliens into the community.
Scott Mather, chairman of the Orange Coast Interfaith Shelter, said the action by Costa Mesa officials is likely to have ramifications throughout the county.
"It's a major precedent," said Mather, who also chairs the Orange County Homeless Issues Task Force. "They are putting the governmental onus on to groups that have never had to deal with such issues before. I have no doubt that other cities will consider similar measures and it will change the way people (who operate charities) serve in Orange County."
The measure is likely to have broad impact because of the scope and diversity of groups and activities it affects, from children's programs such as those offered by Child Guidance Center of Orange County to ones that serve the disabled through the Dayle MacIntosh Center and the elderly through the Harbor Area Adult Daycare Center.
Impact on 60 Groups
It will also have an immediate impact on more than 60 organizations that on Monday were granted $551,749 in city assistance for fiscal 1989-90. According to the policy, the money could be withdrawn from all but those that provide medical services if they fail to agree to the illegal-alien ban.
A spokesman for another immigrant rights group said the action could also leave the city vulnerable to lawsuits by people wrongly denied service.
The new policy requires that agencies receiving city funds--with the exception of health clinics--ensure that the funds are not used to support or assist illegal aliens. But the policy does not specify how that is to be done.
Most charitable groups lack the requisite legal knowledge and are not equipped to screen their customers, said Carlos Holguin, general counsel of the National Center for Immigrant's Rights.
"The city is asking an awful lot of agencies to take on that job," Holguin said. "Immigration status is highly complex and a difficult thing to determine. . . . The city runs a far greater danger in denying services to someone who turns out to be here legally."
Costa Mesa's Acting City Atty. Eleanor Frey did not return telephone calls Wednesday. However, Costa Mesa City Councilman Ed Glasgow said Frey told council members that the measure would "stand constitutional challenges."
A spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington agreed that the new measure does not appear to be unconstitutional or conflict with federal policy.
"We see nothing wrong with it," said INS spokesman Duke Austin. "Yes, there can be standards of eligibility and, yes, you should check them; it is consistent with what the federal government has urged."
Austin argued that taxpayers should not have to subsidize assistance or benefits for those who enter the country illegally.
And he said immigrants' rights activists have condemned the measure prematurely.
"I know these groups, and they tend to overreact," said Austin. "Even before anything is done they are charging massive discrimination and abuses. But in reality that doesn't happen. I can't point to any specific instance where it has."
Court Rulings Cited
But immigrant rights groups said they can point to numerous instances where governments have unfairly tried to restrict services for illegal aliens. The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of children of illegal aliens in several cases in which states attempted to deny them educational access and medical care, said Holguin.
"Is Costa Mesa contending that children of illegal aliens should go without a hot lunch just because of their circumstances?" Holguin asked.
It is a question that many groups will have to grapple with, said Mather.
"It has never been our policy to ask someone if they are deserving (based on legal status), we serve people in need," he said.
He also said his group would not know how to administer a screening test. "It is interesting that the money the city gives is strictly for programs but now they are demanding that we increase administration costs."