Arizona is at the center of the national debate on immigration, and state legislators are drawing more fire this week for a proposal that would require hospital workers to check whether patients are in the country illegally.
The first of its kind in the country, the proposal would require hospital personnel to report illegal immigrants to federal officials. Emergency patients would be allowed to receive care before their immigration status is checked, but critics say the measure is cruel to immigrants who might avoid hospitals for fear of being deported.
"It's in the federal law that we are required to take emergencies and stabilize them. Nobody is going to turn these folks down, we agree with that," says Mesa Republican and Senate President Russell Pearce, who was also the primary sponsor of the controversial immigration law now tied up in federal court. "But I get calls from doctors and nurses every day that work in the emergency room, talking about the abuse, the millions of dollars spent for folks who come in for pregnancy tests, sniffles - they use emergency room services as their primary care," he says. "When do we stand up for the taxpayers?"
The bill was pulled from a scheduled Arizona Senate Judiciary committee hearing Monday after sponsors determined it wouldn't garner enough votes, but it is expected to resurface in another committee at a later date.
And detractors of the bill say that if it is successful, it could not only endanger illegal immigrants, but also their communities.
"I know that people will not come in," says George Pauk, a retired doctor with the Arizona Coalition for a State and National Health Program of emergency room patients. "They will stay away, and people with communicable diseases that affect us all may even stay away and be out there," he said.
What's more, says Pauk, the bill would "criminalize" health workers who do not perform immigration checks.
"There is no criminalization, he overstated it," counters Pearce. "It's outrageous that he makes those kinds of statements. Nobody is criminalizing it. It's already a criminal act to aid and abet illegals in this country. It's a federal felony."
He adds, "Quit inviting people over the border. We give them free stuff, free medical...enough is enough."
"We're fully in favor of police action, immigration action, and federal law governing immigration," Pauk says, but "It should not be state law."