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Q&A: Illegal Immigrants And Public Benefits In Mass.05:51

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State budget negotiators had hoped to send their reconciled plan to the governor Monday, but now say it's more likely to be ready by the end of this week.

There is one amendment (PDF) in the Senate's version that has created controversy. It would tighten access for illegal immigrants to many public services, such as housing and health care.

The measure seems to tap into a perception that illegal immigrants are eligible for many benefits in this state. WBUR's Bianca Vazquez Toness looked at that perception — and the facts behind the state's current policies toward illegal immigrants — on WBUR's Morning Edition.

Bob Oakes: I understand you've talked to people in various towns to see what they're thinking about illegal immigrants and public benefits. Tell me about what you've heard.

Bianca Vazquez Toness: I basically went out and canvassed people on the streets in Framingham, Natick, Braintree and Somerville and asked them if they knew what public benefits illegal immigrants can get in Massachusetts.

Some people said they had no idea. Some guessed that illegal immigrants couldn't receive any services since it seems most things require a Social Security number.

But I would say the majority of the people I spoke to, like Suzanne Malin, a food broker from Braintree, were convinced they knew the right answer.

Well, they get free tuition, they're on our welfare system... They can get anything. Food stamps, if they're not working they can get unemployment benefits. They can get anything they want. They can get more benefits than the citizens of this state. Or this country.

And then there was Michael Shnayder. He came here from Russia after he says he waited years for a green card. He now lives in Natick.

They get everything that we get. Even more. They collect unemployment. They collect welfare. Medicine... our medicine is very much down because of the illegal aliens.

Clearly, there's a strong perception that people can get services. Suzanne Malin brings up the notion that illegal immigrant students get in-state tuition, and that's inaccurate. There's actually been a high-profile campaign in this state for several years to get in-state tuition for those students.

I think it would be useful to kind of do a reality check. Let's start with welfare.

Immigrants who are here illegally cannot get either food stamps or cash assistance. If they have children who are born in the U.S., those children are eligible for food stamps and cash assistance. But it's just to cover the kids.

How about housing subsidies?

This is a place where illegal immigrants do get services. If it's housing subsidized by the federal government, the illegal immigrants are required to share a home with at least one family member who is in the country legally and pay a share of the rent.

Massachusetts and certain cities have their own programs — and they do not ask applicants about their immigration status. That's because of a class action lawsuit that ended with a federal consent decree prohibiting the state from denying housing to illegal immigrants.

Health care? Of course, there's been huge overhaul to try to cover everyone — nationally and in this state. Where do illegal immigrants fit into all that?

Illegal immigrants are not eligible for Medicaid, the federal program for low-income Americans, and they also can't get into the state-subsidized health insurance programs through Massachusetts' Health Connector. In fact, legal immigrants can't do that until they've been here at least five years.

But Massachusetts has something that's called the Health Care Safety Net. That includes coverage for people younger than 19, pregnant women and emergency treatments. Illegal immigrants can access this.

Some of the people you interviewed mentioned unemployment benefits. How does that work?

Illegal immigrants are not eligible for unemployment in this state. In order to apply for unemployment, people have to prove they'd been working legally in their last job, and have the ability to work legally in the future.

What services that illegal immigrants are getting now would the Senates' proposal take away?

Well, one thing it might take away is the Health Care Safety Net. Some people who have looked at this think it might make it much harder for hospitals who treat illegal immigrants in their emergency rooms, or do prenatal care and deliver babies. They worry that the new documentation requirements under this measure would make it impossible for the hospitals to get reimbursed.

And there's the issue of housing, which I don't think will hold up. Under the amendment, families headed by illegal immigrants would be denied housing, even if they have children who were born in the U.S.That would likely be challenged in court.

This amendment could have a dramatic impact here on illegal immigrants. Did you get a sense as to what's brought this about? It feels like it's bubbled up very quickly.

I got the sense from talking to people that this has everything to do with the economy. People are noticing cuts in services, especially local services. Anne Blanchard, of Natick, explained it this way.

Everybody's looking for ways to save money, and everybody's looking for government waste. And they're an easy population to pick on.

We should mention that in addition to tightening restrictions on services, the amendment would also create a 24-hour hot line where people could call to report someone they think is working illegally, which many people worry will lead to abuse and racial profiling.

These restrictions and the hot line would be instated if the Senate's amendment is part of the final budget.

This program aired on June 21, 2010.

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