New Law Forcing State Employees to Report Undocumented Immigrants Causes Fear in Arizona

“There’s panic in the community,” Pastor Magdalena Schwartz says - Photo: Valeria Fernández.

“There’s panic in the community,” Pastor Magdalena Schwartz says. (Photo: Valeria Fernández)

PHOENIX, Arizona — Jazmin hasn’t taken her one-year-old to see the doctor in three days. He has a strong cough and with no heat, it’s been cold in her apartment. She’s been short on cash since her husband –the sole breadwinner– was arrested on domestic violence charges. But because she is undocumented, Jazmin is afraid to ask for any help for her three U.S.-born children.

Her worries are shared by others since the state started enforcing a new law aimed at denying public benefits to undocumented migrants.

“The help I need is not for me, it’s for my children,” said the 24-year-old woman, who asked that her last name be withheld for fear that if the government finds out she’s undocumented it will take away her son’s health insurance.

Community activists have been trying to answer questions from concerned parents like Jazmin and send a clear message through Spanish-language media that basic services like police, fire protection and emergency health care won’t be impacted.

The law, known as HB 2008, was approved as part of a budget package and signed by Gov. Jan Brewer. It took many by surprise when it became effective on Nov. 24. The law requires state employees to report undocumented immigrants they come in contact with as the migrants request federal or state public benefits.

“This is hypocritical. On one hand, the government wants immigrants to come to light and count themselves in the U.S. Census, but on the other they pass laws that force them farther into the shadows,” says Pastor Jesús Garza, from the Assembly of God Church “Centro de Alabanza Judá.”

Garza’s congregation is coming together to help Jazmin. They’re in the process of finding her a place to stay and making an appointment with a doctor for her son. But many other immigrants are having similar doubts.

“When it comes to my daughter’s health I won’t play. I’ll take her to the doctor,” said José, an undocumented father whose daughter — a U.S. citizen — is getting treatment for a liver transplant. “But I feel between a rock and a hard place. If I get deported, then how am I going to care for her?”

Government agencies themselves have questions about how the law should be implemented. The Arizona Department of Administration requested a formal opinion from the Attorney General’s office with over 13 questions about its enforcement.

On Thursday, the Department of Economic Security (DES), which administers several of the benefits impacted, including food stamps and health care insurance known as AHCCCS, issued information to the media regarding the law’s implementation.

“We’re going to continue enforcing state and federal law like we’ve been doing,” said DES spokesperson Steve Meissner. “Failure to produce documents is not admission that you’re in the country illegally.” Meissner stated the new law doesn’t really change much in the way DES has been handling the application process for most benefits.

If a DES employee becomes aware someone is undocumented because of written or verbal admittance, they can use an electronic form to report them directly to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“There’s panic in the community,” said Pastor Magdalena Schwartz from the Disciples of the Kingdom Free United Methodist Church.

Authorities should realize that the confusion is endangering public safety, said Schwartz, because parents are afraid to take their children to the doctor even when this law shouldn’t affect them.

“This is particularly scary now that we’re in the middle of influenza season,” she added.

On Wednesday the Arizona Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit asking for a stay on the law’s implementation filed by the Arizona League of Cities and Towns. The suit questioned the way the law was created, as part of a package of unrelated issues including the state budget. The association is deciding whether to file the challenge again in a lower court in the next two weeks.

Kent Strobeck, executive director for the League, said that the law is an “unfunded mandate” that burdens cities with additional requirements to verify people’s immigration status.

Opponents of the law say it hurts the children of undocumented immigrants whose parents fear being deported if they request a benefit for their kids.

Under federal law, undocumented migrants don’t qualify for any of the benefits in question including housing, welfare or health care.

“The danger (of being reported to immigration authorities) is greater now, but in reality nothing changes,” said Carlos Galindo, a local activist and radio host. Undocumented immigrants don’t qualify for these services and they never have, he said.

Through his radio show on Radio KASA in Spanish, Galindo plans to send a clear message, he said: “Children of immigrants still have the right to receive a benefit, regardless of the status of their parents.”

Supporters of the bill argue it follows the will of Arizona voters who in 2004 approved Proposition 200. The impact of the initiative, aimed at denying public benefits to undocumented immigrants, was limited to five programs by an attorney general’s decision.

“Nothing changed, this is what the voters wanted,” Republican Rep. Steve Montenegro said. “We’re going through difficult economic moments in Arizona. We’re having to cut for so many different areas. It’s only correct to make sure that people that apply and receive benefits are qualified to do so,” he added.

Under the law, government workers could face up to four months in jail if they fail to make a report. And citizens can sue an agency for not implementing it properly.

Lydia Guzman, president of Somos America, has been receiving phone calls from concerned immigrants but also increasingly worried social workers.

“A social worker told me: We can’t tell people not to apply if their children will starve to death. But on the other hand, what am I going to do, it’s not like I can find another job easily?’” she said.

Another concern is that many of these workers might report on refugees or domestic violence victims who have a legitimate claim to a benefit for lack of understanding of immigration law, she added.

Jazmin is one of those people who feels caught in the middle. She’s getting help from the church to apply for a special type of visa –known as “U”– for victims of domestic violence.

“I want to work and support my children,” she said. “But I can’t do nothing but wait.”

AboutValeria Fernández
Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist from Uruguay with more than a 14 years experience as a bilingual documentary producer and reporter on Arizona’s immigrant community and the US-Mexico borderlands. She co-directed and produced "Two Americans,” a documentary that parallels the stories of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and a 9-year-old U.S. citizen whose parents were arrested by the sheriff’s deputies that aired in Al Jazeera America. Her work as reporter for the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting on the economic and social impacts of a mine spill in Northern Mexico broadcast in PBS, San Diego and won an Arizona Press Club recognition for environmental reporting in 2016. She freelances for a number of print, digital and broadcast media outlets, including Feet in 2 Worlds, CNN Español, Radio Bilingue, PRI's Global Nation, Al Jazeera, and Discovery Spanish.