As the state Legislature looks for ways to close a $5 billion budget shortfall, lawmakers are eyeing millions in cuts that could reduce or eliminate services used by illegal immigrants. Washington is projected to spend more than $300 million over the next two years on services illegal immigrants can tap, primarily welfare and health care...

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OLYMPIA — As the Legislature looks for ways to close a $5 billion budget shortfall, lawmakers are examining millions in cuts that could reduce or eliminate services used by illegal immigrants.

Lawmakers already have passed a law that effectively limits the state Basic Health Plan for the working poor to legal residents.

The state estimates around 10,000 people, roughly 18 percent of those on the plan, will lose state-subsidized insurance because they cannot prove they’re here legally. It’s expected to save $59 million over two years.

As part of a much broader budget-cutting plan, Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire also has recommended eliminating a health-care program for children who can’t prove they’re here legally.

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In both cases, Democrats say the moves were made to save money and were not related to who was using the program. Gregoire’s office noted her proposed budget eliminated services used by everyone, regardless of legal status.

Overall, Washington is projected to spend more than $300 million over the next two years on services that illegal immigrants can tap, primarily welfare for children and health care for children, the seriously ill and pregnant women. However, programs that account for most of that spending are effectively off-limits to budget cuts, because of federal restrictions.

Sen. Joe Zarelli, ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, says the Legislature should take a closer look at spending on illegal immigrants.

“We’ve got to question whether we can afford to have state-only programs that only serve illegal-immigrant populations,” said Zarelli, of Ridgefield, Clark County.

Some Republicans have proposed limiting services to people who can prove they are here legally. Democrats, who control the Legislature, say budget cuts should not single out anyone.

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said he’ll oppose any efforts to target services used by illegal residents. But he noted the reality is “every program is going to be cut because of the fiscal crisis. Everybody gets cut.”

Lawmakers over the years have set up several programs specifically for residents who have not or cannot prove legal residency. Exactly how much the state spends on illegal immigrants is not known because some people in these programs may be here legally, even though they haven’t provided documentation.

Advocates for such programs contend eliminating health-care services for illegal immigrants could cost more in the long run, in part because they end up in emergency rooms where care is more expensive.

Fatima Morales, with the Washington Community Action network, said proposals that target illegal immigrants — aside from ignoring the fact that they do pay taxes — are immoral.

“Everyone deserves access to health care, to services, to have a decent life,” she said. “It’s the humane thing to do. It’s the morally right thing to do.”

Ricardo Sanchez, director of Sea Mar’s Latino/a Educational Achievement Project, also argues that illegal immigrants are critical to the economy, particularly in agriculture.

“That’s what’s missing in this whole debate about all this ‘don’t serve illegal immigrants and keep them out of schools and don’t let them have access to college,’ ” he said.

Some numbers not solid

The next two-year budget could affect all immigrants without documentation of legal status, although much of the discussion involves the impact on Hispanics — the state’s largest and fastest-growing minority, with more than 755,000 residents, according to the 2010 census.

It’s not known how many people of all nationalities and ethnicities are in Washington illegally.

There’s also a dearth of comprehensive research comparing benefits states provide that illegal immigrants can tap. Services appear to vary by state. But Washington is not unique, at least in some of its offerings.

For example, Massachusetts, comparable to Washington in population, provides many of the same social services for illegal immigrants, including health care for children as well as kidney dialysis and cancer treatment for adults.

The Congressional Budget Office in 2007 published a report on the impact of “unauthorized immigrants” on state and local budgets nationally. The study concluded that a small proportion of spending on state and local services went to undocumented residents.

But the analysis, which reviewed 29 reports published over 15 years, also said tax revenues generated by those residents “do not offset the total cost of services provided to those immigrants.”

Washington state has made only a quick estimate of state expenses. Roughly half of tax revenues are generated by the sales tax, which everyone pays, including illegal immigrants.

The state is expected to spend more than $100 million over two years on services the Legislature has the authority to change or eliminate, including $59 million for medical and dental care for more than 25,000 children from low-income families. The children are not eligible for Medicaid because there’s no proof they’re here legally.

An additional $24 million is expected to be spent for kidney dialysis and cancer treatment for about 1,300 people ineligible for Medicaid because they also can’t prove they’re legal residents.

Millions more will go to in-state tuition subsidies for college students and nursing-home care.

The state also expects to spend about $200 million over two years on two other programs that officials say the state can’t change due to federal restrictions. Those programs receive federal matching dollars, and changing them could put overall federal Medicaid funding at risk, state officials said.

One program, projected to cost $125 million, provides health care to about 7,400 pregnant women ineligible for Medicaid because they have not shown they’re here legally. The service is provided, in part, because their newborn children will be U.S. citizens. The other program provides welfare payments for children, estimated at $73 million. The federal government requires proof that the children are here legally, but not their parents.

When it comes to K-12 education, the state does not track how many undocumented children attend public schools, and federal case law requires states to provide an education to all children, despite citizenship status.

Lawmakers from both parties have said there are services used by illegal immigrants that would not be eliminated.

While Zarelli questions a lot of state spending on services for illegal immigrants, he said he would not cut funding for kidney dialysis and cancer treatment:

“That’s something you shouldn’t pull the plug on. It would be inhumane.”

Material from The Seattle Times archives was used in this story.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266


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