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Bill to deny public housing to illegals advances

With a bill that seeks to deny undocumented aliens from getting public housing assistance, Arizona Republican lawmakers are positioning to wade deeper into a battle with the federal government over immigration.

Despite warnings that the proposal will get challenged in court and similar city ordinances have been struck down elsewhere in the country, the Senate Government Reform Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 2, approved a bill that would require proof of citizenship or legal status to get public housing. The bill also would require public housing employees to evict residents who allowed an illegal immigrant to stay with them.

The reason for the bill, according to the sponsor, Gilbert Republican Sen. Andy Biggs, is that in spite of laws precluding undocumented immigrants from getting public benefits, they still do.

The measure, SB1222, advanced on a party-line 5-to-2 vote.

At issue is a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development policy that appears to still to allow undocumented aliens to take advantage of the public-housing benefit.

Under the Federal Code of Regulations, housing assistance is extended to “mixed families.” That means families that include undocumented members could still get the public benefit.

For Biggs and supporters of the SB1222, that contradicts federal law, which says only lawful aliens may get the housing assistance.

The legislation is the latest of several that Arizona lawmakers have introduced through the years to confront illegal immigration. They argue that the federal government has abdicated its responsibility to address the problem, leaving states to fend for themselves and to bear the social and financial costs associated with illegal immigration.

But some critics said the real question is whether the state can dictate where federal dollars go. The answer, critics say, is “no.”

They also argue that although the country’s immigration system is broken, states cannot arbitrarily pass laws to try to fix it. Such efforts, they said, usurp the federal government’s supremacy over immigration matters.

Arizona, which has now has very restrictive laws on illegal immigration, is at the forefront of the debate. Indeed, its politicians have not been shy to push the boundaries, and, if need be, defend their policies in court.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Phoenix, said Biggs’ bill will end up in court.

“You heard me say last week that we’re becoming a ‘professional defendant,’” she said. “This is pure litigation.”

For instance, Sinema and other critics say, the bill’s list of documents that may be used to prove legal status, such as an Arizona driver license or a passport, is more restrictive than the federal list. It therefore arbitrarily excludes some lawful residents who are eligible to get housing assistance but would be denied because they cannot show the documents the bill would require.

Another provision that raises the red flag for critics is increasing the penalty to a Class 1 misdemeanor, from the current Class 2 misdemeanor, for public housing employees who fail to report violations of federal immigration laws. A public housing employee failing to evict residents who harbor illegal aliens also would be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.

“Public servants would face a pretty significant criminal record for simply doing their job,” said Anjali Abraham of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Abraham said that raises due process concerns.

Abraham said similar city ordinances have been struck down elsewhere in the country, and such litigation has been costly to taxpayers.

But Sen. Ron Gould, a Republican from Lake Havasu City, said such reasoning shouldn’t stop legislators from enacting bills.

“Should we be so afraid of going to court that we should just lie down and not do anything on the mere threat of a lawsuit?” Gould said.

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