A newly approved voter initiative requires state employees to check the immigration status only of those applying for welfare programs — and not even all of them — Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard concluded Friday.
Goddard, in a formal opinion, said Proposition 200 does not require verification that applicants for all state programs are in this country legally. He said the initiative language, placed in the state’s welfare code, cannot affect things from hunting licenses to the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.
He also said welfare programs paid for or mandated wholly or in large part with federal funds are not covered. That, Goddard said, exempts the state’s health care program, food stamps, temporary assistance to needy families, public health immunizations and noncash disaster relief from the proofof-legal-residency requirements to obtain "public benefits,’’ a term not defined in the initiative.
Goddard was less clear about what is covered.
"We think there’s a high probability that general assistance does, that certain rental assistance and housing assistance,’’ Goddard said. "But until we’ve had a chance to finish this process I don’t want to name a particular program.’’
Kathy McKee, who crafted the Protect Arizona Now initiative, said she was pleased with Goddard’s opinion even though he disagreed with her contention that the initiative, approved by voters Nov. 2, also covers AHCCCS, the state’s version of Medicaid for indigent residents.
From a practical standpoint, though, she said proof of legal status will apply because AHCCCS eligibility is determined by the same Department of Economic Security caseworkers who handle the affected welfare program. So any individual who goes to DES is being screened for all programs — including those clearly covered by Proposition 200.
Randy Pullen, chairman of a pro-200 committee, said Goddard is off base. "We always expected he would have a narrow opinion,’’ he said.
Pullen said he had considered going to court to force a more expansive definition of who has to prove legal residency. But he instead will ask the Legislature to enlarge the scope of the voter-approved law.
He said state lawmakers will note that the initiative passed with 56 percent approval, which he said shows Arizona voters want broad restrictions on the ability of illegal immigrants to get public services.
Pullen conceded the measure could face a veto by Gov. Janet Napolitano, who opposed even the original initiative. He said, though, that she might want to reconsider if she hopes to get re-elected in two years.
Napolitano, however, said she is looking only to implement what voters approved.
"We will follow Prop. 200, we will follow the law,’’ she said.
"What the attorney general is doing now is telling us what the law is. And that will be the advice we adhere to unless and until a court says otherwise.’’
Goddard said his narrow view is based on the fact that Proposition 200 supporters specifically put it into Title 46, the state’s welfare code. In fact, Goddard noted, the new provision is inserted in the code directly after a law that already makes welfare fraud illegal.
Barnett Lotstein, a special assistant to Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley, said Arizona courts consider attorney generals’ opinions "persuasive authority,’’ though they are not legally binding. Lotstein also said state employees who follow Goddard’s legal advice generally are immune from liability.