LINCOLN — Despite two research studies to the contrary, Gov. Dave Heineman insisted Monday that Nebraska would become a "magnet" for illegal immigrants if the state resumed a practice of providing taxpayer-funded prenatal services for women in the country illegally.
"If Nebraska provides benefits to illegal aliens, when 36 other states do not — including all of our surrounding states -— logic indicates that Nebraska will be incenting illegals to come to our state in order to receive taxpayer-funded benefits," the governor said in a prepared statement.
Heineman's comments came as interest groups weighed in on both sides of the issue, pressing senators to change their votes.
Studies from 2000 and 2001 concluded that immigrants decided where to live based on the availability of jobs and the proximity of family members. Welfare benefits, the studies concluded, were not a factor.
Two immigration advocates in Nebraska and a third from a national center said they know of no studies that link tax-funded prenatal care with prompting illegal immigrants to move to a certain state.
"The idea that a pregnant woman would search around the county, independent of any other need, for a state that offers prenatal services seems far-fetched to me," said Tanya Broder, a senior staff attorney with the California-based National Immigration Law Center.
The debate comes as the Nebraska Legislature is poised to take a final vote Wednesday on a controversial bill that would restore taxpayer-funded prenatal services to about 1,100 illegal immigrants a year and about 40 legal residents who are prison inmates.
Heineman, a staunch foe of illegal immigration, has promised a veto of Legislative Bill 599, setting up a veto-override attempt during the final days of the 2012 session.
A group of pro-life senators, led by State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, the Speaker of the Legislature, argue that a healthy start for these children — who automatically become American citizens upon birth and qualify for taxpayer-funded health care — outweighs the legal considerations of whether their mothers are legal residents.
The issue has heated up since the Legislature, in something of a surprise last week, advanced the bill through two of the required three rounds of debate.
Heineman, in an unprecedented move, singled out Flood, a fellow Republican, for criticism even though 29 other senators supported LB 599, including 13 other Republicans.
Heineman's weekly column, distributed to newspapers across the state, came with an attachment last week: a list of how every state senator voted on LB 599.
The Nebraska Republican Party also weighed in, urging an email campaign to persuade supporters of LB 599 to change their vote. The Nebraskans Advisory Group, which has pushed for tougher laws against illegal immigrants, urged the GOP to make the bill a wedge issue by withholding any financial support to senators who support the measure.
"Every single dollar that is spent on illegal aliens is a dollar that is not spent on citizens and legal immigrants," said an email from Susan Smith, the head of the advisory group.
Meanwhile, the state's teachers union, the Nebraska State Education Association, came out in favor of LB 599, saying that investing in prenatal care will save taxpayer money over time and prevent children from entering school "developmentally challenged."
Nebraska Right to Life, the state's largest pro-life group, issued a statement Monday calling on six pro-life senators who voted "no" on LB 599 to switch and support the bill.
"It is sad and alarming that we have come to this point where some of the major pro-life leaders in the Legislature are choosing to put the illegal immigration issue, and who pays for what, over the life and health of babies in the womb," said Executive Director Julie Schmit-Albin in a letter to the six. "When did it become important to pick and choose which babies deserve prenatal care and which babies don't, by virtue of whose womb they reside in?"
Heineman and other opponents of LB 599 have said the issue is illegal immigration, not the rights of the unborn.
"This is an issue of fairness," the governor said in his statement Monday. "Hard-working Nebraskans pay their taxes and obey the laws. Illegal aliens who don't pay taxes and don't obey the laws should not be receiving taxpayer-funded benefits."
Heineman said Nebraska will become a "magnet" for illegal immigrants because no bordering states provide such prenatal services.
Exact counts vary on how many states now provide taxpayer-financed prenatal care.
The governor, citing a check by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services of federal Medicaid statistics, said 14 states cover the unborn children of undocumented women through the Children's Health Insurance Program: Arkansas, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.
The Children's Health Insurance Program uses a combination of state and federal funds.
The Kaiser Family Foundation additionally lists New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., as having state-funded prenatal programs.
The National Immigration Law Center says there are 13 states and Washington, D.C.
Advocates for LB 599 said the studies they are aware of discount any magnet effect, the concern noted by Heineman.
A 2000 study, "Health Care Use Among Undocumented Latino Immigrants," surveyed immigrants who settled in Texas and California cities. Respondents said jobs and family led them to settle in those cities, said Aubrey Mancuso, a policy coordinator for Voices for Children, which advocates on child welfare issues.
Mancuso and others also cited a 2001 study, "The Integration of Immigrant Families in the United States," which concluded that jobs, and not generous social safety nets, prompted immigrants to settle where they did.
That study also concluded that illegal immigrant families grew four times faster in states that offered less-generous public benefits than in those offering relatively ample safety nets, because more jobs were available, Mancuso said.
"Proximity to other family members and jobs, that's how most of us decide where to live," Mancuso said. "And immigrant families are no different."
During debate on LB 599 last week, State Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha raised concerns about illegal immigrants who live just across the river in Iowa. Could they obtain prenatal care in Nebraska if the bill passed? Who would check their identity and address? How would residency and income be verified?
McCoy said Monday that he wasn't satisfied with the answers he received.
"There's no argument over the value of prenatal care — I've got four kids under age 9," he said. "I think, though, this legislation is very problematic."
Jennifer Carter of the Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, a supporter of LB 599, said she's confident that health professionals will verify that only Nebraska residents would get the prenatal care.
Carter said Nebraska had provided prenatal care for illegal immigrants from the 1970s until 2010 and did not see a magnet effect during that period.
For every $1 invested in prenatal care, studies indicate a savings of between $1.70 and $3.38 by reducing neonatal complications, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"This is really all about protective health," Carter said, "making sure babies are born healthier so that a child doesn't suffer and we're not paying more down the line."
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