The California Problem

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Lawyers in California tell me that running an immigration law practice there is both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because of the sheer volume of Mexican illegal immigrants (search) flowing across the border who seek some form of legal immigration status.

But it's a curse because every practitioner knows that there is a much larger, untapped population of potential customers who will never seek the services of an immigration lawyer because they will never need them. As one friend told me: "In California, the distinction between having legal immigration status and no legal immigration status really is purely legal. There is no practical distinction at all."

The benefits in immigrating to California (search) have been known to Mexican nationals for at least a decade, but California's taxpayers are only now realizing the true cost. By some estimates, one-third of all illegal immigrants to the U.S. reside in California. The draws: programs like Medi-Cal (search), other state-based social programs, and a regulatory environment that is deliberately welcoming to the illegal immigrant. Though taxpayers have tried to end the steady flow of public money to illegal immigrants, politicians like Gov. Gray Davis (search), in poorly conceived efforts to curry the favor of yet one more interest group, have always stepped in to assure that the money continues to flow.

Proposition 187 (search), a ballot measure passed by voters in 1994, denied public benefits to illegal aliens. The day after voters passed it, groups such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (search) sued and sought a permanent injunction against Proposition 187 becoming law. An injunction remains in effect, and though Davis said during his campaign that he would appeal, he steadfastly refused to do so once he was elected. There is now a pending measure that would make obtaining a California driver's license much easier for illegal immigrants. Prior to his election being recalled, Davis had said that if the measure made it to his desk, he would sign it.

Los Angeles County is facing the closure of 16 hospitals and health care facilities because of looming insolvency. The problem is not that the facilities are underused. They are used too much, and because health care workers are not instructed -- some would say not permitted -- to inquire as to the immigration status of people seeking care, the facilities are saddled with millions in costs that are not reimbursable under the Medicaid (search) program. Medicaid reimburses medical facilities only for emergency treatment of illegal aliens. Because no inquiry as to immigration status or even residency is ever made, medical services that are not reimbursable under Medicaid are regularly rendered. As a result, Los Angeles County incurred a $360 million healthcare deficit in fiscal 2002 alone.

The Investigations Division of the California Department of Health Services (search) operated two port of entry Medi-Cal fraud detection programs; one called the Port of Entry Detection Program (search) the other the California Airport Residency Review (search). Both were highly successful, but were shut down because they were attacked by immigrants' rights groups.

In order to justify closing the program down, the California state auditor did an "investigation" and ordered the programs shut down. It issued a report in April 1999 (coinciding with the crescendo of pressure from immigrants' rights groups) that claimed the program was no longer justified. Any responsible governor and legislature would have found a way to improve the program to continue to deny benefits to illegal immigrants and other ineligible recipients. In all likelihood, it would have saved the state from the $30 billion deficit it now faces. Gray Davis wouldn't do it.  
"Anti-borders groups will characterize any attempt to point out the negative impact of massive immigration on California's teetering health care system as 'blaming immigrants.'  But, in a world in which nearly five billion people live in countries poorer than Mexico, the fact simply must be faced that California cannot be the emergency room to the world," says Craig Nelson, director of the advocacy group Friends of Immigration Law Enforcement (search). "California taxpayers have the right to know how their health care tax dollars are being spent, who is getting that health care, and whether such provision violates any laws. At the very least, hospitals and other providers must begin gathering data on the immigration status of those accessing the system," Nelson says.

We can hope that Gov. Davis takes time to reflect on what brought him to a point at which he faces an historic recall election (search), but he probably won't. He has sold out California's taxpayers in a deliberate plan to remain in office by offending no one, except perhaps the 59 percent of Californians who voted for Proposition 187. The result is a record deficit and a popularity rating so low that many hardcore Democrats want him to leave office. Other states must look to California as an example of what happens to governors who refuse to address the problem of unchecked illegal immigration.           

Matt Hayes began practicing immigration law shortly after graduating from Pace University School of Law in 1994, representing new immigrants in civil and criminal matters. He teaches at Berkeley College, and is author of The New Immigration Law and Practice, to be published in October.

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