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A California civil suit is seeking to force Los Angeles County public health officials to recoup the costs of free medical care for indigent legal immigrants by tapping the immigrants’ sponsors. The suit, Anderson v. Garthwaite, No. BS086042 (Los Angeles Co., Calif., Super. Ct.), mixes a provision of the California civil procedure code that allows taxpayers to sue the government with a U.S. immigration law requirement passed in 1996 as part of welfare reform. The immigration element is key to the case. Legal immigrants have sponsors who agree to reimburse government agencies for the cost of providing benefits to immigrants receiving government assistance. The suit explores whether these sponsors are truly on the hook and can be forced to pay by parties who did not participate in the sponsorship agreement. Action could spread If the suit catches on, its sponsors, Friends of Immigration Law Enforcement in Washington, are considering bringing similar actions in other California counties and-if taxpayer lawsuit statutes apply-other states, said Craig Nelsen, the group’s director. “We are concerned about the widespread disregard for immigration law,” Nelsen said. The litigation is an effort to “do our bit to try to move it in the other direction,” he said. In California, taxpayers can enjoin the government from any illegal act or wasteful spending by suing under Section 526a of the state code of civil procedure. Moreover, taxpayers may sue to force the government to collect money due it, a state appellate court held last year. Now add legal immigrants to the picture. Their entry into the United States hinges on a sponsor, such as a citizen or permanent resident, providing an “affidavit of support.” In the affidavit, the sponsor agrees to reimburse any government agency for low-income-type benefits the immigrant received but cannot pay for. The affidavit requirement was added in 1996 as part of welfare reform. Though Los Angeles’ Health Department has a projected $700 million in deficits and has closed 11 facilities, it has never tried to collect from legal immigrants’ sponsors and, consequently, is not complying with immigration law, which requires it to seek reimbursement from sponsors, the suit alleges. The plaintiffs, Terry Anderson and Hal Netkin, are Los Angeles County taxpayers who oppose unenforced immigration laws, said Nelsen. They allege harm from paying higher taxes to support the medical facilities but receiving reduced services because of facility shutdowns. Friends of Immigration Law Enforcement, a nonprofit group of attorneys, lawmakers and law enforcement officers, does not want to force the hospital into court to get judgments against the sponsors, Nelsen said. “Just send them a bill,” he said. “That’s all we’re asking.” If the plaintiffs prevail, the win would be merely symbolic, said plaintiffs’ counsel James E. Bame, who runs his own law office in Torrance, Calif. He typically handles intellectual property and real estate matters, not immigration or taxpayer suits. Neither side knows how much money is at stake, Bame said. Sharon A. Reichman, principal deputy county counsel for Los Angeles County, said the opposition brief speaks for itself. The county argues, among other things, that there is no private right of action to enforce immigration laws, and that the plaintiffs have no standing to bring the case. A hearing is set for September. A key question of law California taxpayers have used the civil procedure code to sue the government over issues such as budgets, road construction and driver’s education. However, a question of law remains regarding just how enforceable the immigrant-sponsoring affidavits are, said immigration law professor Richard A. Boswell of the University of California Hastings College of the Law. Experts don’t seem to know whether any government agency has ever sought to collect from an immigrant’s sponsor. Perhaps the affidavit requirement was meant to be more of a deterrent to immigration than a basis for collection, Boswell said. Some of the more unusual aspects of the case may doom it, said one litigation expert who represented the winning plaintiff in a California taxpayer suit in the 1990s involving an immigration issue and a public university. In that case, California State University was compelled to stop allowing undocumented aliens to qualify as state residents for tuition purposes. American Ass’n of Women v. Board of Trustees of the Calif. State Univ., 31 Cal. App. 4th 702 (1995). The prevailing lawyer in that case, Richard L. Knickerbocker, who heads his own Santa Monica, Calif., firm, said the taxpayers in the health care suit have “no chance in the world of winning.” The case would have a better chance in federal court, bringing in the U.S. government as a party, he said.

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