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Senate vote hits illegal residents

Measure restricts immigrants’ access to state services

By Noah Bierman and Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / May 28, 2010

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The Massachusetts Senate passed a far-reaching crackdown yesterday on illegal immigrants and those who hire them, going further, senators said, than any immigration bill proposed over the past five years.

In a measure of just how politically potent illegal immigration has become, the Senate, on a 28-10 vote, replaced a far milder budget amendment it had passed Wednesday. The sweeping provision, if it makes it into law, would toughen or expand rules that bar illegal immigrants from public health care, housing, and higher education benefits.

The amendment would also clear the way for courts, the state attorney general, and even average citizens to get new tools, including an anonymous hot line, to report illegal immigrants or companies that employ them to the government.

The prospects for the measure to become law, however, are uncertain. Not only would it have to make the final budget plan lawmakers approve for next fiscal year, but it would also have to survive a possible veto by Governor Deval Patrick, who has been cool to such initiatives.

Still, the vote, on the second day of Senate budget debate, stunned both advocates for immigrants and those who favor stricter enforcement, for its broad sweep and the swiftness with which it passed in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

“Whoo hoo! They voted for it. Must be an election year,’’ said Christen Varley, president of the Greater Boston Tea Party, who said the measure exceeded her group’s demands. “I’m surprised it passed in the Senate. I really am.’’

After about a half-hour of debate, immigration advocates say, the amendment dramatically changed the state’s image as a compassionate, immigrant-friendly state. Only three years ago, some Massachusetts officials were critical of a dramatic federal immigration raid at a New Bedford factory and the state even sent social workers to Texas to check on immigrants who may have been separated from their children.

Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente in Somerville, immediately scheduled a rally for noon tomorrow on Boston Common in protest. Eva A. Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said she asked for an urgent meeting with Attorney General Martha Coakley.

“The poorest and the least able to defend themselves will suffer so that the powerful people on Beacon Hill can get reelected,’’ Millona said.

The measure would bar the state from doing business with any company found to break federal laws barring the hiring of illegal immigrants. It would also toughen penalties for driving without a license and for creating or using fake identification documents and would explicitly deny in-state college tuition rates for illegal immigrants.

In addition, the amendment would require the state’s public health insurance program to verify residency through the Department of Homeland Security and would prevent illegal immigrants from getting subsidized housing over legal residents.

Advocates said several provisions in the amendment were unnecessary, because illegal immigrants are already ineligible for most government services and benefits, including in-state tuition. Patrick spokesman Juan Martinez made the same point in a statement, saying, “the state already has extensive and rigorous eligibility screenings and residency requirements’’ for many services.

“We will continue to work with the House and the Senate to ensure that any new efforts are not duplicative, too costly, and overly burdensome for all citizens,’’ Martinez said.

Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Boston Democrat who opposed the measure, said it had not been properly vetted and would add undue obligations for businesses and state government when they could ill afford it. Minutes after the measure passed, she looked stricken.

“It was a shameful vote,’’ she told reporters. “That’s all I have to say.’’

But supporters, especially Republicans, struck patriotic notes and spoke of the sanctity of the rule of law on the Senate floor.

“It was President Lincoln — and I’m going to paraphrase here — who suggested that respect for the law should be preached from every pulpit, taught by every mother to every child,’’ said state Senator Bruce E. Tarr, a Gloucester Republican.

The vote comes weeks after a measure that sought to bar illegal immigrants from state services narrowly failed in the House. It adds to heightened debate over illegal immigration fueled by the election season and Arizona’s passage in April of the toughest immigration law in the nation, which gives state and local police broad powers to help enforce federal immigration laws.

Though immigration laws are enforced by the federal government, many states have sought to toughen their own laws, partly out of frustration that Washington has not come up with a solution to deal with the estimated 12 million people living in the United States illegally.

Recent polls have found that, while voters supported blocking illegal immigrants’ access to public benefits, they were split over whether the Bay State should have a law like Arizona’s. Most immigrants in Massachusetts are here legally, but an estimated 190,000, or 20 percent, are here illegally, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Supporters said the measure is more about cracking down on fraud and protecting tax money than replicating the expanded powers given to Arizona police.

“We are not Arizona. This is different than Arizona,’’ said state Senator Steven A. Baddour, a Methuen Democrat who worked with Republicans late Wednesday night to craft the final bill.

The amendment would give some new indirect authority to local law enforcement, forcing the courts to report any illegal immigrants charged with crimes to federal authorities, whether they are found guilty or not.

It also requests that Coakley discuss a potential state enforcement role with the US Justice Department and report on her findings. Coakley, who has made a point of reaching out to immigrants to fight employment exploitation, said through a spokeswoman that she was reviewing the amendment.

The Senate vote puts added political pressure on House leaders and the governor. Patrick has taken some action against illegal immigration, including signing an executive order requiring state contractors to weed out illegal immigrants, but has said that efforts to block services for illegal immigrants are about “trying to invent a villain for political purposes.’’

Charles D. Baker, Patrick’s Republican opponent, called on Patrick to support the measure, applauding the Senate for “listening to the residents here who have long called for serious action in illegal immigration.’’

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo was noncommittal, saying in a statement that the matter would be addressed in a House-Senate conference committee and that he believes “we should make sure residency requirements are fully enforced.’’

Senate President Therese Murray helped negotiate the bill, but she did not fully endorse it.

“There are parts of it that I don’t like,’’ she said. “But the members wanted it.’’

Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com; Sacchetti at msacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @mariasacchetti.

Highlights of the
Senate amendment

▸ Requires state contractors to verify the citizenship status of all employees.

▸ Increases the penalties for driving without a license and for using false identification.

▸ Establishes a 24-hour toll-free telephone hot line for confidential reporting of unlawful employment of unauthorized immigrants.

▸ Requires MassHealth to verify the immigration status of enrollees.

▸ Requires state courts to verify the immigration status of any criminal defendant.

▸ Prevents illegal immigrants from displacing legal immigrants and citizens from public housing.

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