PHOENIX - A state legislator is moving to put Arizona's hospitals on the front line in the fight against illegal immigration.
The proposal by Rep. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, would require hospitals to "reasonably confirm" those who show up at their doors are in the country legally if they do not produce proof of valid health insurance. HB 2293 lists methods hospital officials and employees can use to make that determination.
The measure says if legal status cannot be verified, someone from the hospital "must immediately contact the local federal immigration office or a local law enforcement agency to report the incident."
The legislation is drawing alarm from the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association.
"When does this begin or end?" asked Pete Wertheim, the organization's vice president of strategic communication. "What other industry should be screening their customers for citizenship verification?"
The hospital proposal is just part of what Smith wants the Legislature this session to enact to deal with illegal immigration.
A separate measure, HB 2289, would require the state Department of Education to collect data on how many students are not in this country legally.
Federal law now requires public schools to educate all children who live within each district, without charge, whether they are in this country legally or not. Nothing in Smith's plan would permit schools to turn away those who cannot provide citizenship proof.
Instead, Smith said the legislation is aimed at gathering data on the financial burden illegal immigrants put on schools - data he said Arizona could use to try to get reimbursement from the federal government.
But Dan Pochoda of the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said even just asking for that information is illegal because it would deter parents here illegally from sending their youngsters to school.
Smith said he does not understand hospital opposition to HB 2293, saying he's just asking them to do their civic duty.
"I would hope if you witnessed somebody who is not lawfully present in this country taking advantage of, getting, acquiring any benefit or social service or something that they're not entitled to, or something they're abusing or neglected, I would hope somebody would pick up the phone and go, 'Maricopa police, Buckeye police, I think - I'm not sure - but I think this is happening,' " he said.
Smith said hospitals already have legal responsibilities to call police if someone shows up in the emergency room with a gunshot wound.
Wertheim, however, sees an order to demand citizenship information as an unfunded mandate on hospitals that are busy seeing more than 3 million patients a year. Plus, hospital employees don't have the kind of training necessary to determine someone's immigration status.
Smith said his measure does not require immigration expertise, pointing out anyone with a driver's license from any state is presumed to be legal.
Foreigners from countries where the U.S. does not require a visa to visit need to produce only documentation of their own citizenship. And others could show a valid nonimmigrant visa.
He was undeterred by the fact those here under the "deferred action program," who arrived in the United States illegally as children, are considered by federal officials to be here legally.
Smith said he singled out hospitals for special attention because of the public cost involved. "Hospitals and uninsured care is one of the largest burdens on the taxpayers," he said.
But Wertheim said he does not see how Smith's legislation helps any of that.
"We cannot detain them," he said, adding not all of the 1.2 million who are without insurance in Arizona are here illegally.
He did concede that the fear of being reported to federal agents might convince some who do not have emergency situations to stay away. Still, Wertheim said it makes no sense to have to check everyone to keep away what he believes is "a fairly small percent" of patients without legal presence in the country.
Smith said his separate bid to get a census of illegal immigrant children in public schools is a simple question of data.
"We just want a count," he said, because no one knows how many students are in the public school system, and there are financial implications.
"The first thing I do is send a bill to the federal government for an unfunded mandate," he said.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimated four years ago that 60,000 to 65,000 of the 1.2 million youths in Arizona schools at that time were here illegally.
Pochoda said Smith's reason for wanting the numbers is irrelevant. He said a court would see the move as a bid to keep children away from a right to which they are entitled.
The bill contains no mechanism to punish districts that choose to ignore the requests. But Smith said he believes the state agency could decide on its own whether to sanction districts that refuse to do the checks and provide the data.
On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at azstarnet.com/border