June 14, 2006

Levy Lauds Reform Amendment

Across the nation communities are crying out for immigration reform. Down in Washington in the coming months, lawmakers are likely to be making noise themselves, as Senate and House versions of immigration reform bills are debated in conference committee. Amid the cacophony, it appears at least one local lawmaker's voice has been heard. Recently County Executive Steve Levy extolled Washington policy makers for amending the Senate bill to include a provision relating to something dear to his heart money.

Last winter, the county executive, along with Mayor Mark Boughton of Danbury, Connecticut, joined together to form Mayors & Executives For Immigration Reform. A national lobbying group boasting dozens of members, MEFIR has called for better border enforcement and federal funding to offset the financial burden increased numbers of undocumented immigrants entail.

Recently MEFIR expressed support for an amendment to the senate's bill, which provides a $7 billion reimbursement over a 10-year period to communities for increased costs in the areas of education, health care and related services. Under the State Impact Assistance Grant Program each state will disburse 30% of funds received to localities. While Levy supports the provision, he'd like to see a much greater percentage 80 allocated. Boughton agreed. Additionally, the mayor would like to see the scope of funding expand to include housing, public safety, and correctional facility costs.

So far, there's one aspect of the amendment that could prove problematic exactly how municipalities would go about demonstrating their need. "That is going to be one of the rubs," Mayor Boughton said. In Danbury, a city of 80,000, he estimated the number of undocumented people has increased by 50% in the last five years. Boughton believes that nonprofit organizations that serve the undocumented segment of the city already have figures that could be used to justify federal aid. The mayor is confident the data can be given to government officials in a manner that protects confidentiality.

That's what Congressman Tim Bishop wants to see. Congress has consistently taken the position that health care providers and others should not be turned into de facto immigration officers, he said. Last year a measure requiring hospitals to check immigration status before treating patients was "overwhelmingly" voted down, he reminded.

For Bishop's money the senate bill in general represents the best possible solution out there. But, he admitted, "It's not perfect." Details as far as how municipalities might demonstrate need are among myriad issues that need to be worked out, according to Bishop. He emphasized that the likelihood of healthcare and social service providers being asked to violate confidentiality standards is "quite low."

Despite promises that confidentiality will be protected, activists in the advocacy community continue to be concerned. "If something like this passes, we get back to the question of social service and health providers checking citizenship status," Luis Valenzuela of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance opined.

According to Levy spokesman Ed Dumas, the county already receives some federal reimbursement for caring for indigent patients. Seeking reimbursement for services provided to undocumented immigrants is no different, he claimed.

In 2004, county health centers logged 208,000 visits that weren't covered by any form of medical insurance. Dumas said a conservative estimate would count half those visits as by undocumented persons. With an average cost per visit of $125, that means the county spent $6.5 million caring for undocumented immigrants, the spokesman asserted.

Valenzuela's not so sure. He cited a recent study conducted in North Carolina, home to over 600,000 Latinos. They contributed $9.2 billion to the economy, at a cost of about $102 per person in services. "I think that trade-off is pretty good," the activist said, adding, "We don't believe immigrants access health care to a degree that it becomes a burden compared to their contributions."

In the coming weeks, a Senate-House panel will begin to attempt to reach a compromise immigration reform bill. According to Bishop spokesman Jon Schneider, it's possible no final product will emerge from the conference committee due to vast philosophical differences. The Senate bill contains language on earned legalization while the House bill makes all undocumented immigrants felons.

For Boughton the focus is keeping the reimbursement provision in the senate bill. Although he admitted such committees traditionally only entertain provisions common to both iterations, the mayor said, "It's in the Senate version and that's good enough." If it didn't make either draft, he said, "We'd still lobby those guys."

In a statement released this week Levy pointed out that New York Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer co-sponsored a resolution seeking reimbursement to localities. Overall, however, he credited MEFIR.

"We believe the Senate is looking at local reimbursement in large part due to the pressure this group has brought to bear on the issue," he said. The coalition has been lobbying federal officials since March.

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