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Wilson Moves to Limit Benefits for Illegal Immigrants

Welfare: Dec. 1. is cutoff date. Agencies are told to identify all other programs affected by new federal bans.

November 05, 1996|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Armed with a favorable federal court ruling, the administration of Gov. Pete Wilson is proceeding with wide-ranging plans to ban illegal immigrants from receiving prenatal care benefits and from participating in dozens of other aid programs financed exclusively with state money.

"Any state-funded program identified under our review will be terminated for illegal immigrants," said Sean Walsh, a spokesman for Wilson, who has ordered all agencies to identify programs affected by the federal welfare law's new bans on aid for the undocumented.

The list of efforts potentially targeted is broad, from cancer-screening and foster care to post-secondary education to state licenses and contracts--all now open to otherwise eligible state residents, regardless of immigration status.

But, with the exception of pregnancy aid and a separate subsidy for illegal immigrants in nursing homes, it is unclear to what extent illegal immigrants make use of state aid programs.

"We just haven't tracked it in the past," said Corinne Chee, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Social Services.

Beyond a Dec. 1 cutoff for prenatal care, no precise timetable has yet emerged to halt benefits. "We are not setting artificial deadlines, but we are fairly close to concluding our review," Walsh said.

Court papers filed in the federal court case against Proposition 187 identify a host of wholly state-funded programs that could henceforth be banned to illegal immigrants, including efforts providing early breast-cancer detection; child-abuse prevention; foster care; abortion and family planning services, and assistance for the deaf and disabled.

The federal welfare overhaul, signed into law by President Clinton in August, mandates that state and local governments terminate most aid to illegal immigrants, unless states pass new laws specifically authorizing the assistance. Illegal immigrants were already excluded from most federal benefit programs.

California has moved more swiftly than any state to impose the welfare law's new bans on locally funded aid for illegal immigrants. A few local governments, including those in San Francisco and New York, have announced their intention to defy Washington and continue providing aid to illegal immigrants.

On Friday, the Wilson administration issued "emergency" regulations that would end state-subsidized prenatal care to illegal immigrants by next month. The state has provided the assistance since 1988.

A federal court ruling in the Proposition 187 case late Friday opened the way for the governor to proceed in shutting out the undocumented from state-assistance rolls. U.S. District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer in Los Angeles ruled that her injunction blocking implementation of much of the 1994 ballot initiative does not stop the state from proceeding under authority of the federal welfare law.

Still, a potential technical impediment is devising an accurate system to verify applicants' immigration status. Top-level officials of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service are reviewing the anticipated broad new demands on the agency's database.

Meanwhile, immigrant advocates are drafting alternate legal challenges aimed at blocking the state from cutting off prenatal benefits. One group of potential lawsuits could involve constitutional questions, citing the rights of the future U.S.-citizen children of women denied prenatal care.

Citing state law, health providers and others are disputing the state's use of fast-track, "emergency" regulations, which are legally designed tor ensure the immediate preservation of public health and safety.

"We see the governor's action as creating a public health emergency, not preventing one," said Katherine Kneer, executive director of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, one of the groups opposed to the governor's action. "We think this is the first time emergency regulations have been used to end medical care."

Health professionals statewide predict increased illness and death for mothers and children, while anticipating elevated emergency-room costs as pregnant women avoid care.

Wilson has not disputed the health benefits of prenatal care, but the governor has contended that the program is too costly and is a magnet for illegal immigration. According to official estimates, the state will spend almost $70 million during fiscal 1996-97 to subsidize prenatal care for 70,000 illegal immigrants.

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