Legislative flurry targets benefits for immigrants
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 30, 2005
Elvia Díaz

Bernarda Zavala spends four hours a day in a Phoenix classroom learning English, science and math so she can help her three school-age children with their homework.

But the lessons soon could end for Zavala, an undocumented immigrant. House Bill 2030 would ban government funding for the course and other programs that help immigrants adjust to life in Arizona.

The measure is part of a flurry of immigration-related bills moving rapidly through the Legislature as lawmakers react to a public outcry over illegal border crossers. Other bills would deny undocumented immigrants public housing, a college education, publicly funded child care and utility assistance, among other benefits.

"Legislators are strengthened and embolden by Proposition 200," said Bruce Merrill, an Arizona State University political scientist and pollster. "They are on a roll because immigration is a growing concern in Arizona."

The goal of HB 2030 is to build on Proposition 200, the anti-illegal immigration initiative approved by Arizona voters in November, by denying a greater number of benefits to undocumented immigrants. The purpose is not only to save the state money but to discourage such immigrants from settling in the state.

In addition to HB 2030, the House has approved legislation banning government-sponsored day-labor centers and forcing immigrants to pay out-of-state tuition to attend college. On Thursday, a Senate panel will consider the day centers and a proposal to build a prison in Mexico for undocumented immigrants caught in Arizona.

The House also endorsed a measure denying bail to immigrants who commit serious crimes and a referendum that could allow voters to declare English as the state's official language. Senators are expected to vote on those measures in the next few days.


Ticket to the future


At the heart of the debate is whether the state should help undocumented immigrants in any fashion.

Zavala, 33, considers the self-paced course her ticket to a better future for her and her family.

"It helps me grow, and it gives me the tools to help my children with their homework," said Zavala, adding that she wouldn't know where to go if she was banned from the class. The class is offered by the Literacy Volunteers of Maricopa County Inc., which contracts with the state.

"It would be devastating," Zavala said. "I understand people want to shut as many doors as possible, thinking we would pack and go."

Margarita Jimenez, who is in the class with Zavala, said she, too, would be left without a chance of getting a formal education because she's here illegally.

"We seem to be an easy target for politicians who want to blame us for everything," Jimenez said as she sat in the class.

HB 2030 would also affect college students like 19-year-old Yuliana Huicochea, whose parents brought her to Arizona illegally when she was 4.

"My educational dreams would be wiped out," said Huicochea, who has a 3.58 grade-point average at Phoenix College and plans to transfer to Arizona State University.

Under the proposed legislation offered by Republican Rep. Tom Boone of Glendale, she wouldn't be allowed to attend ASU.

"It's too high of a price to pay for something I didn't choose to do," said Huicochea, referring to her parents' decision to bring her to United States.

Boone has pledged to amend his bill to allow students to attend college as long as they pay out-of-state tuition, which would amount to thousands of dollars more per year than what immigrants currently pay. To Huicochea and other students, that provision would still keep them from the university because it would be hard to come up with more than $14,000 each academic year. They would be banned from any government financial aid and grants.


Immigration concerns


Boone says he doesn't intend to be punitive with immigrants. He and his supporters said they are addressing the concerns from their constituents who believe that immigrants are draining the state coffers and that ultimately Arizonans shouldn't have to subsidize any services currently offered to immigrants. So far, there are no estimates as to exactly how much Arizona would save if the immigration-related bills were signed into law.

Critics of the bills concur that Republicans are reacting to the public's frustration, but they argue the proposed legislation won't keep immigrants from crossing the border. They suggest that a better approach would be to lobby the federal government for immigration reform that would allow more immigrants to come here legally.

Everyone agrees that Arizonans are facing the brunt of undocumented immigrants in part because the federal government blocked other popular border crossings in California and Texas.

For instance, Arizona has gained 200,000 undocumented immigrants in the past five years, according to estimates recently released by the Pew Hispanic Center. That means Arizona now has the fifth-largest population of undocumented people, or about 500,000, of the estimated 11 million in the United States, according to the report.

Experts say it's no coincidence Arizonans approved Proposition 200, which denies undocumented immigrants certain public benefits and would prevent them from voting. The measure is also inspiring a movement across the country from Alabama and Georgia to Nebraska to pass measures designed to curb illegal immigration legislatively or by public vote.

Some Arizona legislators have said it's hard to remain idle when immigrants are dying in the desert and others are destroying private property in their trek to the north.

"Constituents in my district want the border secure," said Rep. Jonathan Paton, R-Tucson, who sponsored a bill signed into law this session targeting "coyotes" and human traffickers.


Feeling intimidated


Some who oppose the bills attribute the Republican success thus far to fear.

"Proposition 200 has intimidated politicians," said Salvador Reza, who oversees Macehualli Work Center, a privately run day-labor center in northeast Phoenix.

"There is too much fear to be viewed as a friend of immigrants."

Unable to block the bills, opponents are turning to Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano. But it is uncertain what she will do if the measures reach her desk. She faces re-election next year, and even some of her supporters say the anti-illegal immigration sentiment could be used to unseat her.

"She'll have to step up and veto those bills," said Luis Ibarra, head of the non-profit Friendly House, which provides social services. "But we will have to help her because she'll be attacked politically."

Napolitano has a policy of not commenting on pending legislation, and she has declined to say whether she would veto the immigration bills.

But she, too, has made illegal immigration a high-profile issue by calling on Washington to do more to protect the Arizona border and urging Mexico to do its part to keep workers there.

Last week, Napolitano billed Uncle Sam $196.6 million to cover what the state spends on incarcerating undocumented immigrants. It's the second time this year she has asked the federal government to help Arizona out.

"There is an understandable frustration among Arizonans with the lack of control of the border," Napolitano said.

Reporter Chip Scutari contributed to this article. Reach the reporter at elvia.diaz@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-8948.