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'' that 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 that hospital officials and employees can use to make that determination.
But the measure also 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 of students are not in this country legally.
Federal law, at least as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, requires public schools to educate all children who live within each district, without charge, whether they are in this country legally or not. And 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 that 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 families of illegal immigrant children from sending their youngsters to school.
Smith said he does not understand the opposition of the hospitals 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.
And Smith said hospitals already have legal responsibilities to call police if someone shows up in the emergency room with a gunshot wound.
Wertheim, however, said he sees the directive to demand citizenship information as an unfunded mandate on the hospitals that are busy seeing more than three million patients a year. Anyway, he said, it's not like hospital employees have the kind of training necessary to determine someone's immigration status.
Smith countered that 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 produce only documentation of their own citizenship. And others could show a valid nonimmigrant visa.
He was undeterred by the fact there are others without documentation who are considered by federal officials to be in this country legally, including the latest "deferred action'' program aimed at those who arrived in the United States illegally as children.
As to why he singled out hospitals for special attention, Smith said it's a matter of money. "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 of those suspected of being illegal immigrants. And he said not every one of the 1.2 million uninsured in Arizona -- people who would lack the evidence of valid health insurance that triggers what Smith's bill would require -- are here illegally.
He did concede conceded 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, saying no one knows how many students are in the public school system. But Smith said there are financial implications.
"The first thing I do is send a bill to the federal government for an unfunded mandate,'' he said.
The closest thing to an estimate came four years ago from Pew Hispanic Center. It estimated that 60,000 to 65,000 of the 1.2 million youngsters in Arizona schools at that time were not in this country legally.
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.
Less clear is exactly how Smith would enforce the law.
The directive is aimed not at individual schools but instead at the state Department of Education. He said it would be up to that agency to tell the state's more than 200 school districts what data it needs.
He acknowledged the legislation 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.