By Franco Ordonez
The fiery national debate over the cost of illegal immigrants and their U.S.-born children will land at the feet of Mecklenburg county commissioners Tuesday night when they discuss a proposal to report undocumented family members of U.S.-born children receiving public benefits.
Commissioner Bill James wants the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services to "ignore state and federal regulations" and alert immigration officials and/or the sheriff's office when it suspects an illegal immigrant has applied for welfare or food stamps for their U.S.-born children.
"We're handing out benefits with a wink and a nod and using 'anchor babies' as cover," James said.
James said he wants to ensure that the illegal immigrants identified are not a national security threat.
Jennifer Roberts, the commissioners' chair, and fellow Democratic commissioner Dumont Clarke said Monday that James's proposal has little chance of passing.
Critics say his plan is against the law and would ultimately hurt U.S. children who rightfully deserve those public benefits. Jess George, executive director of the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte, called it "reprehensible."
"Bill James's words continue to be charged with this very anti-immigrant sentiment," she said. "Conflating immigrants with terrorists is not only erroneous and ill-informed, but it also perpetuates the language of hate that continues to be infused in the immigration dialogue."
Under the 14th Amendment, citizenship is automatically granted to children born in the United States. This summer, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., joined several other Republicans when he proposed introducing a constitutional amendment to deny citizenship to children of illegal immigrants.
A recent study from the Pew Hispanic Center found the number of U.S. children with at least one undocumented parent went from 2.7 million in 2003 to 4 million in 2008. More than 70 percent of all children of illegal immigrants are U.S. citizens.
DSS says 5,635 families out of the 61,074 families receiving food stamps in Mecklenburg include at least one unauthorized immigrant. Public benefits to the children of suspected illegal immigrants made up $2.7 million, or 3.4 percent, of the $77 million in total payments to Mecklenburg residents in July, including welfare, food stamps and Medicaid.
DSS checks eligibility for welfare benefits with the help of a federal system known as SAVE. It can also identify an applicant's immigration status.
DSS Director Mary Wilson said the agency is prohibited from reporting an applicant's immigration status to federal authorities unless it knows of a formal order of deportation.
James's resolution would "require DSS to disclose to the Sheriff/ICE/Homeland Security the details of ANY individuals within their files who have been determined to be illegal under the SAVE program."
James said his move was spurred by an e-mail from a DSS staffer who reported that an illegal immigrant mother of a U.S.-born baby can receive 13 months of Medicaid coverage for their newborn and $200 a month in food stamps for the baby.
"We can't lose sight of the fact that these are U.S. children," Wilson said. "The fact that they're born to illegal immigrants is a separate issue. But we're providing benefits to U.S. children."
Sarah Preston, policy director for the ACLU of North Carolina, said if commissioners approve James's motion, they would be opening the county to the risk of expensive litigation.
Similar ordinances around the country, including one in Hazleton, Pa., have been declared unconstitutional and have cost their communities millions of dollars in legal fees, she said.
Roberts said she plans to vote against the measure. She said it's not a good use of taxpayer money in tight economic times to provoke a lawsuit when the county is following federal guidelines and protecting U.S. citizens.
James said the county should not be intimidated by the possibility of lawsuit.
"From my perspective, I'm very comfortable to go to court and have them explain that they know people are breaking the law yet don't submit them to homeland security."
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