By MARC LEVY
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — People who want public benefits, from unemployment compensation to admission to a state-subsidized university, would have to prove they are U.S. citizens or legal residents under a bill approved Wednesday by the state Senate.
The GOP-sponsored bill is designed to prevent illegal immigrants from improperly receiving public benefits, aside from those services deemed essential to public health, such as immunizations, disaster aid and emergency medical care.
Critics of the bill, including Gov. Ed Rendell's administration and civil rights advocates, say there is no proof that illegal immigrants have improperly received any such benefits. They warn that it is unnecessary, expensive and would only hurt legal residents who have no ID.
The GOP-controlled Senate approved the bill, 39-10, with all but one Republican supporting it and nine of 21 Democrats opposing it. It now heads to the House, where Democrats have a one-vote edge.
Under the legislation, applicants for many government benefits would have to provide some type of government ID, as well as sign an affidavit saying they are legal residents.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said Pennsylvania and other states have no choice but to grapple with illegal immigration because the federal government has not stemmed the flow of illegal immigrants.
"All we're asking is the state, under public welfare and public programs, verify citizenship, verify that those receiving public benefits are American citizens, are here legally and entitled to these benefits," Scarnati, the Senate's president pro tempore, said on the Senate floor.
Hundreds of measures pending in state legislatures this year deal with immigration, including some that resemble a year-old law in Oklahoma that restricts illegal immigrants' access to government IDs and public benefits while penalizing employers who hire them.
The Pennsylvania bill would affect applications for Medicaid, state-subsidized universities, state college grants, unemployment compensation, the state's adultBasic health insurance program, home-heating help under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, food stamps, welfare cash grants and more, according to the Senate GOP.
Children under 18 would be exempt, as would the disabled who receive Supplemental Security Income or Social Security and seniors who are eligible for Medicare.
A spokesman for the House Democratic leaders did not offer a position, but chided the Senate's Republican leaders for inaction on Democratic measures to expand state subsidies for health insurance coverage, clean-energy development and energy conservation.
"Gas is $3.50 a gallon, there are 250,000 working people who can't afford to get sick and the Senate is more concerned that an illegal immigrant might be applying to Penn State," House Democratic spokesman Bob Caton said.
Chuck Ardo, a spokesman for Rendell, said the state's Department of Public Welfare already verifies the citizenship and identity of persons seeking benefits, beyond the requirements in the bill.
"We believe that the bill is an expensive response to an issue that may not be the problem some people would have us believe it is," he said.
Advocates for the poor, including Philadelphia-based Community Legal Services and the American Civil Liberties Union, said the bill will do little more than throw up roadblocks to public assistance for thousands of legal residents who do not have ID, including the poor, elderly, homeless, mentally ill, newly released prison inmates and victims of domestic violence who have fled their homes.