Approaching yet another arena in the ongoing debate over United States immigration policy, Rep. Tom Tancredo says he wants immigrant sponsors to repay any public assistance used by their charges once they get here.

"State budgets are being strained to an incredible degree," Tancredo, R-Colo., said. "There is a federal law that can help."

Indeed there is. As part of the massive welfare reform overhaul of 1996, a section of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act requires all sponsors of immigrants under the family reunification visa to sign a pledge accepting liability for any welfare services obtained by the sponsored immigrant in the period before they obtain citizenship. Any programs used must be reimbursed by the sponsor.

The new law applies to all immigrants coming into the country under the family visa after Aug. 22, 1996.

Since such immigrants are barred from receiving any federal welfare such as Medicaid, food stamps and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families for five years upon entering the country, the reimbursement provision would have only gone into effect within the last two years, said Tancredo.

"I think there are some states who don’t even realize they have this opportunity," said the three-term representative, who called the idea of reminding sponsors of their responsibilities "politically sensitive" but nonetheless a reasonable way for states to help balance their budgets.

Not everyone agrees. Gabrielle Lessard, staff attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, called Tancredo "mean-spirited."

"I think this is just another example of scapegoating immigrants for the larger economic situation," Lessard said. "We’re talking about people who work and pay taxes here. Now they won’t want to use benefits because they won’t want to hurt their sponsors." While Tancredo urged governors to enforce the law on the books, some immigration experts say they wouldn’t be surprised if the rule is widely ignored.

"I’m skeptical that it could be done," said Steven Camarota, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which just released a study finding that the number of immigrant households receiving assistance went up since 1996 despite welfare reform.

In 2001, 23 percent — or 3 million — immigrant households used some form of public assistance — up from 22 percent in 1996. While the use of TANF and food stamps is markedly down, the increase reflects a greater use of Medicaid, mostly for children in the immigrant households, said Camarota.

The cost is also rising on the Medicaid program, one-third of which is picked up by the states, said Camarota.

"That’s bad news for taxpayers," but still, he said, the states seem unwilling to go after sponsors to recoup the funds.

"States haven’t wanted to do it. It’s administratively burdensome and politically unpopular," he said, adding that setting up an administration apparatus to go after sponsors could be more costly than the public assistance itself.

Tancredo, who has been a staunch advocate for beefing up border patrols in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, said that's a bad reason for not seeking the funds.

"That might be the case, but frankly, if we don’t intend to enforce the law, it shouldn’t be a law," he said.

"Its another example about how schizophrenic we are about immigration," he added. "We pass laws we don’t intend to enforce. We make it look as though it’s a perfectly rational system when behind it all, there’s chaos."

Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said Tancredo "is just trying to point our something that is common sense in the policy arena but because of a lack of guts and political will," it won’t be recognized.

But a spokesman for Gov. Gray Davis of California, which has one of the largest immigrant populations in the country, said going after sponsors for public assistance is "nowhere on our radar."

"The governor does not have a position on this right now," said spokesman Russ Lopez. "Right now were are putting all of our focus on the budget and trying to get the state out of the red and into the black."

Tancredo said if the United States wasn’t "providing health care for the third world," it might not have such financial problems.

"Your raising my taxes because of budget deficits but at the same time not enforcing a law that allows the state to be reimbursed by people who promised to do so?" he asked.

"I never forced anyone to sign this document."