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RIGHTS-US: Panic Erupts in Wake of New Anti-Immigrant Law

Valeria Fernández

PHOENIX, Arizona, Dec 4 2009 (IPS) - Arizona community activists and religious leaders are trying to mitigate fears over a new law that would require state employees to denounce undocumented immigrants.

Lydia Guzmán, president of the pro-immigrant coalition Somos America, speaks with the local Spanish TV station Univision 33 about the new law.  Credit: Valeria Fernández/IPS

Lydia Guzmán, president of the pro-immigrant coalition Somos America, speaks with the local Spanish TV station Univision 33 about the new law. Credit: Valeria Fernández/IPS

“There’s panic in the community,” said Pastor Magdalena Schwartz from the Disciples of the Kingdom Free United Methodist Church.

Authorities should realise that the confusion is endangering public safety, said Schwartz, because parents are afraid to take their children to the doctor even when this law shouldn’t affect them.

“This is particularly scary now that we’re in the middle of influenza season,” she added.

Arizona is considered a testing ground for immigration laws for the rest of the nation. Over the past five years, Republicans have enacted legislation that ranges from banning scholarships for undocumented students to denying bail to undocumented people charged with a crime.

HB 2008 – which took effect on Nov. 24 – requires state, city and any government employee in Arizona to report to immigration authorities any undocumented immigrants who request a public benefit. Government workers could face up to four months in jail if they fail to make a report.

The law also gives taxpayers the right to sue a state or city agency if they believe the law is not enforced properly.

While the new regulation doesn’t affect emergency healthcare, police and firefighter services, there’s growing concern and distrust.

“When it comes to my daughter’s health, I won’t play. I’ll take her to the doctor,” said José, an undocumented father whose daughter – a U.S. citizen – is getting treatment for a liver transplant.

“But I feel between a rock and a hard place. If I get deported, then how am I going to care for her?” he told IPS.

Jazmin, an undocumented mother, hasn’t taken her son – again, a U.S. citizen – to see the doctor in three days because she fears she could be deported.

She’s also afraid of sharing her identity because she thinks immigration authorities might come after her since she has a pending application to renew the state healthcare insurance of her child.

Recently, she came in contact with a church group that is helping her.

Pastor Jesús Garza from the Assemblies of God church, “Centro de Alabanza Judá”, has been aiding dozens of fearful immigrant families to attend doctor appointments.

Civil rights attorney Daniel Ortega said pro-immigrant groups are fighting the fear with information through Spanish media.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that as long as people don’t admit that they are in the country illegally, they don’t have anything to worry about,” Ortega told IPS. And if they are undocumented immigrants, then they know they shouldn’t be applying for public or state benefits, he added.

Government agencies themselves have questions about how the law should be implemented. The Arizona Department of Administration requested a formal opinion from the Attorney General’s Office with over 13 questions about its enforcement.

Thursday, the Department of Economic Security (DES) that administers several of the benefits impacted, including food stamps and healthcare insurance known as AHCCCS, issued information to the media regarding procedures the law applies to.

“We’re going to continue enforcing state and federal law like we’ve been doing,” said DES spokesperson Steve Meissner. “Failure to produce documents is not admission that you’re in the country illegally.”

Supporters of the bill argue it follows the will of Arizona voters who in 2004 approved Proposition 200. The impact of the initiative, aimed at denying public benefits to undocumented immigrants, was limited to five programmes by an attorney general’s decision.

“Nothing changed, this is what the voters wanted,” said Republican Rep. Steve Montenegro. “We’re going through difficult economic moments in Arizona. We’re having to cut for so many different areas. It’s only correct to make sure that people that apply and receive benefits are qualified to do so,” he added.

Opponents of the law say it hurts the children of undocumented immigrants whose parents fear being deported if they request a benefit for their kids.

“I don’t believe that rhetoric, that’s what they always said. But the emergency rooms empty for a while and they’re filled again,” said Valerie Roller, a member of Riders U.S.A., a local organisation that opposes the legalisation of undocumented immigrants.

Roller also believes the children of undocumented immigrants born in the U.S. shouldn’t be entitled to become citizens.

Lydia Guzmán, president of the pro-immigrant group Somos America, is receiving concerned phone calls from social workers. They fear they could lose their job if they fail to denounce someone who is illegally in the country.

There is growing concern about migrants who are caught in the middle, like Jazmin.

“The help I need is not for me, it’s for my children,” the 24-year-old woman told IPS.

A number of legal challenges in the works might bring the law to a halt.

On Wednesday, the Arizona Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit asking for a stay on the law’s implementation filed by the Arizona League of Cities and Towns. The suit questioned the way the law was created. The association is deciding whether to file the challenge again in a lower court in the next two weeks.

Other groups like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) are getting ready to challenge the substance of the law.

“MALDEF and I are ready to file a lawsuit in the event there’s a denial of benefits that shouldn’t have been denied, or a prosecution of an employee who shouldn’t have been prosecuted,” said civil rights attorney Ortega.

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