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Family Values or Financial Stability?

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April 2007
Family Values or Financial Stability?

Connecticut says Madhvi Bahguna owes it $20,178.22.

She didn't neglect her taxes. But her mother, who immigrated to the United States from India seven years ago, used state benefits to receive medical treatment for her diseased heart.

The state Department of Social Services (DSS) is suing Bahguna and about 300 other people in Connecticut because they were sponsors of immigrants who received public support. A provision in the 1996 federal Welfare Reform Act makes sponsors legally liable for the public assistance immigrants receive.

"I don't know how I'm going to pay this bill. I'm on my own," said Bahguna, a naturalized citizen and single mother with two children who makes about $45,000 a year as a Delta Air Lines flight attendant. If Bahguna doesn't pay, the state can seize her Stamford home and car.

Connecticut is not the only state in the nation pursuing sponsors for payment of immigrants' benefits covered under Medicaid and the State-Administered General Assistance program. Immigration advocates say the practice is financially devastating to sponsors, and it prevents legal immigrants from receiving the critical health care they qualify for. "You sponsor an immigrant ... and that person develops a need for a lung transplant. It's completely impossible and grossly unfair for a sponsor to be charged with paying that back," said Megan McLeod, an attorney with Connecticut Legal Services.

Most states have chosen not to collect from sponsors, finding the process administratively burdensome and politically charged. However, in Connecticut, DSS issued memorandums to its employees outlining procedures on how to collect. The highest priority is given to collecting public assistance that was provided to immigrants who are residing in nursing homes, according to the memo.

David Deerborn, a spokesman for the state agency, said federal law requires states to seek reimbursement on behalf of taxpayers. "Immigrant sponsors agree to reimburse taxpayers for government benefits as a condition of the person entering the country," Deerborn said. According to DSS, the state has 10 years from the date the immigrant uses state benefits to seek reimbursement.

Legal entry into the United States has always been contingent upon a sponsor, usually a family member who promises to support the immigrant financially.

But after the 1996 Republican-led Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, all sponsors must sign an affidavit of support agreeing to reimburse any government agency if the immigrant receives benefits established for low-income residents. The rationale behind the legislation is to prevent legal immigrants from becoming a "public charge," a ward of the state.

In 2004, a group called Friends of Immigration Law Enforcement filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles County's Department of Health Services, claiming it was violating federal law by not collecting from sponsors. A judge later dismissed the lawsuit.

Bahguna thought that every time her mother was rushed to Stamford Hospital or visited by a doctor, her care was covered under Medicaid, which her mother qualified for. Bahguna said she tried working out a payment plan of about $100 a month with DSS, but the agency said no. Yale University's Jerome Frank Legal Services Organization, a free legal clinic, has taken Bahguna's case.

Vimla Bahguna returned to India in November with her damaged heart rather than risk another hospital or doctor visit. "I had no choice but to leave. I don't want to burden my daughter anymore. This is a lot of money to pay for someone who is trying to make it in America," Bahguna said.


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