State welfare officials will now be reporting applicants for benefits who are not in this country legally to federal immigration officials.
A new policy made public Thursday says eligibility workers at the Department of Economic Security must file a report to Immigration and Customs Enforcement when anyone they are dealing with admits he or she is an illegal immigrant.
The policy also says the report must be filed when federal immigration officials provide "confirmed documentation'' that the applicant is not in the country legally. That also includes the results of computerized checks run by state workers of applicants through the federal government's computerized Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) program.
But the policy does not require any reports to be filed if someone walks away without benefits because that person did not provide proper documentation.
The move follows legislative approval in August of new laws designed to tighten up who can get public benefits.
A 2004 voter-approved law was billed as closing the door on these benefits to anyone who could not prove legal residency. But a legal interpretation of that initiative by Attorney General Terry Goddard, as implemented by then-Gov. Janet Napolitano, confined that prohibition to only certain programs.
Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said this new law, which took effect last week, closes those loopholes and ensures that the law covers every service paid for by Arizona taxpayers.
At the most basic level, the new law spells out what documents are acceptable as proof of legal residency. It also adds a requirement for a sworn affidavit from applicants.
But the big change is what Pearce said is an enforceable requirement to report any illegal immigrant who applies for any state or local public benefits.
That provision has teeth: Any state or local worker who fails to report "discovered violations'' of federal immigration law can be prosecuted. The penalty for failing to comply with the law includes up to four months in jail and a $750 fine.
The law also applies that same penalty to any supervisor who is complicit.
"We are making it clear to all our staff that they have to follow state and federal law,'' said DES spokesman Steve Meissner, including this new measure. He said the new policy will give "clear guidance'' to eligibility workers about what actions trigger a "discovered violation'' of federal immigration law and what they are supposed to do about it.
Meissner said the new law clears up some "ambiguity'' about what benefits require proof of legal presence in this country.
For example, he said there were questions whether someone needed to provide such proof to collect unemployment benefits. Despite that, Meissner said, DES eligibility workers had asked for documentation from applicants for these payments.
This new law, he said, erases any doubts that DES can demand the documents and turn away those who do not provide them.