SUMMARY: Though states and local governments acquire costs because of illegal immigration, federal legislation bars unauthorized immigrants from the majority of federal and state benefits. The costs to states like Alabama come from services that are protected by national laws and court decisions, leaving states with few options for the restriction of benefits.
ANALYSIS: Many conservative pundits and organizations place the costs of welfare services to illegal immigrants in the billions. For more than 10 years, however, illegal immigrants have been ineligible for all but basic public benefits.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 prohibited illegal immigrants from any federal benefits. The benefits were defined as "any grant, contract, loan, professional license or commercial license provided by an agency of the United States or by appropriated funds of the United States." The law had only a few exceptions such as the use of emergency services, soup kitchens and disaster relief. The act, usually shortened to PRWORA, also made illegal immigrants ineligible for state benefits with the same exceptions as the federal regulations.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, even legal immigrants are not eligible for food stamps or Medicaid until five years after they arrive in the country. They are also not eligible for SSI until they become U.S. citizens. However, exceptions are made for groups such as children or people with disabilities.
How do agencies verify someone's immigration status? According to the Congressional Research Center, many agencies offering public benefits use the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements database. This software allows agency administrators to check an applicant's immigration documents with the records of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
A 2007 Congressional Budget Office report said local and state governments did suffer small losses providing services for illegal immigrants, but had few options to limit or minimize the losses. According to the report, the losses were concentrated in education, health care and law enforcement.
"Rules governing many federal programs, as well as decisions handed down by various courts, limit the authority of state and local governments to avoid or constrain the costs of providing services to unauthorized citizens," the report stated.
The CBO reported that states' expenses for covering unauthorized immigrants were a small percentage of the overall costs of the programs. The average was less than 5 percent. In California, the state with the highest level of illegal immigrants, it was less than 10 percent.
The Star's efforts to reach representatives with the Bentley campaign have been unsuccessful.