BY LAURA KELLAMS ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
Approving legislation with the stated aim of discouraging illegal immigration could hurt Arkansas' chances of landing major economic development projects such as a long-sought Toyota factory, Gov. Mike Huckabee said Wednesday.
Speaking on his monthly radio call-in show on the Arkansas Radio Network, the governor said he doubted that Senate Bill 206 by Sen. Jim Holt would get anywhere in the Legislature. But if it did, Huckabee said, it could deter a company like Toyota Motor Corp. or Sanyo Corp. in Forrest City or Nestle USA in Jonesboro from investing in Arkansas.
"If we send the message that, essentially, `If you don't look like us, talk like us and speak like us, we don't want you.' It has tremendous economic repercussions," Huckabee told radio listeners.
Holt of Springdale, a Republican like Huckabee, said in an interview later that his bill would do no such thing.
SB206 would place stricter identification requirements - verification of citizenship - on people who register to vote and apply for state or local public services. The bill, modeled after Arizona's Proposition 200, states that Arkansas encourages illegal immigration by providing public benefits to illegal aliens and that the state has provided a "safe haven" in contradiction to federal immigration policy.
Huckabee said it's just not true that illegal aliens are receiving welfare, food stamps and other public services. Anyone aware that they are should alert the attorney general's office or the prosecutor's office, because that's fraud, he said.
"What this has done is it's inflamed a whole lot of people's emotions, making them think we've got to rush in and pass some laws to stop some terrible thing going on that isn't even going on," he said.
The state does offer some services to illegal aliens, however.
Those services include health services at the Arkansas Department of Health, where clinic employees don't ask for any identification before offering services, and prenatal care specifically for illegal aliens as part of the state Medicaid program. Huckabee has proposed expanded state services to illegal aliens by extending college scholarship eligibility and in-state tuition fees to them.
Huckabee, with a raspy voice he said was caused by "rapid weather changes and incessant speaking," said people who've been calling radio stations and writing letters to the editor in favor of SB206 should first get their facts straight.
"Before you point a gun and pull the trigger, make sure it's loaded and pointed at a proper target," Huckabee said.
Holt, who didn't hear the radio show, said he can't help it if other people try to "demagogue" on talk radio or in newspapers for or against SB206. He said he was not referring to Huckabee but to radio callers and newspaper columnists.
"I'm not going to get into this game of name-calling. We're going to dialogue on a levelheaded plane," he said.
He said nobody really believes that illegal immigrants aren't receiving state services.
"Do people really believe that? That they're not getting benefits illegally?" Holt said. "Everybody knows better than that.
"As a public servant, for us to say there's no problem with people coming over here legally, and no one wants to touch the issue for crying `racist' - that's not going to help the problem." Asked for specific cases of illegal aliens using state services, he said, "I can tell you a bunch." But he said he won't do that until later.
He said he is saving those specifics for testimony in legislative committee.
Holt said his bill would not change the state's eligibility requirements for programs, just the identification required to receive benefits.
But Julie Munsell, a spokesman for Department of Human Services, said changing identification requirements could change eligibility, as well.
For example, the state offers a prenatal care program specifically to illegal aliens who are pregnant, the idea being that the baby who is born of that pregnancy will be a U.S. citizen who's eligible for the state's ARKids First Medicaid program.
It's not a program that is required by federal law. The state decided to implement an optional program because officials believed it could save money in the long run.
On average, prenatal care costs $1,300 from doctors' appointments to post-delivery care, compared to an average of $1,800 for one day in a neonatal intensive care unit, she said. Good prenatal care can prevent an intensive care stay in some cases, she said.
Holt said he doesn't believe his bill would change that state program, but Munsell said being required to show proof of U.S. citizenship would negate the program because the illegal aliens for whom it's intended can't show genuine proof of citizenship, she said.
Huckabee told radio listeners that the state offers that program because Arkansas is "pro-life" and because the Arkansas Constitution states that life begins at conception.
He also said that illegal immigrants in some cases are actually financially supporting U.S. citizens, rather than the other way around. Illegal aliens pay sales tax, fuel tax, income tax for which they won't receive refunds, and Social Security tax that they'll never collect on, he said.
"In essence, you're not paying for them. They're paying to help your parents. They're paying to subsidize your parents' Social Security and tax refund, and they don't get those benefits, and that's what we're trying to make sure people understand," Huckabee told one caller.
Holt said that just underscores the reason why the state should try to curb illegal immigration. It's not a good system for the immigrant, either, he said.
"We're saying people are coming over here who are illegal ... if we don't make them uphold the law, is that not exploiting people?" Holt asked.
"When we allow them to come over illegally, against our laws, we set them up as a thirdrate resident of our nation. It's exploiting a minority is what it's doing, and for what? The sake of big business?"
He said the system encourages lawbreakers, like allowing a child who steals a cookie to eat it, anyway.
"I am enabling my child to become a criminal if I don't teach him a respect for the law," he said.
On the radio show, callers were split on whether they agreed with Huckabee, who has called for expanding state services to illegal aliens by offering in-state tuition prices and scholarship eligibility to those who graduate from Arkansas high schools. School and university officials have said they don't know how many illegal aliens graduate from Arkansas high schools.
The school system doesn't ask children or their parents for information about their immigration status.
One caller who said he was from North Little Rock asked Huckabee whether he or did not "take an oath to uphold the law of this land."
Huckabee said he did, "absolutely." He said if illegal aliens are trying to vote, they should be arrested. But he said SB206 is inflaming the public to believe there's a problem when there's not.
Mitch Chandler of Little Rock, spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Economic Development, said Huckabee is right about the possible implications of SB206 on economic development.
"It could send a message that if you don't look like us, we don't want you," Chandler said. "That's not the case."
Chandler said foreign-owned companies employ 30,000 Arkansans.