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California governor urges faster immigration reform

By Sharon Bernstein

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Wading into the national debate over immigration, California Governor Jerry Brown is pushing for a faster path to citizenship for the millions of people who are in the country illegally.

Brown's is the latest in a chorus of voices from the most populous U.S. state calling for swift enactment of reform - but also demanding that a provision that would delay full citizenship for 10 or more years be removed from the immigration overhaul legislation being considered in the U.S. Senate.

The delay is of particular concern to policymakers in California, because it means that the state's mostly poor illegal immigrants will be excluded for a decade from any federal financial support under the healthcare law known as Obamacare, as well as from programs such as food stamps and medicaid.

As a result, California may have to bear the cost of creating a 10-year safety net, or suffer the consequences of not having one.

"In order to avoid dire consequences for our state, comprehensive immigration reform must occur this year, and the resulting path to citizenship must be smooth and rapid," Brown wrote in a letter to Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic U.S. senator from California, released on Monday. "We should not hold these workers in a state of purgatory for ten years."

Last week, officials from Los Angeles County, where an estimated 11 percent of the adult population is undocumented, made a similar request.

The concern comes on the heels of a study released last week by the University of Southern California showing that 7 percent of California's population - 2.6 million people - are undocumented. One in six California children has at least one parent who is undocumented, and two-thirds of those children live in poverty, the report showed.

Last year, California spent more than $600 million on emergency room and other health-related services alone for people living in the state illegally, who are excluded from federal poverty programs such as Medicaid, according to figures provided by the state.

The current version of the immigration bill drawn up by a group of eight Democratic and Republican senators explicitly excludes them from such programs for at least 10 years.

The exclusion was an important part of a compromise that allowed both Democrats and Republicans to sign on to support the bill.

But Anthony Wright, a healthcare advocate who heads the group Health Access California, said it will create higher social and financial costs in the long run.

"It's wrong, it's shortsighted, ... it's tragic," said Wright. "It's not good for those families, and it's not good for the community and the state as a whole."

If and when the proposed immigration overhaul becomes law, some illegal immigrants will likely get health insurance because they will be able to get better jobs that offer such benefits, Wright said. But his organization estimates that about 1 million will remain without insurance - even after an immigration overhaul and the full implementation of the healthcare law.

"The way in which the reform is set up, they will not have access to any federal means-tested program during the next 10 to 13 years," said Giovanni Peri, an economist who specializes in immigration issues at the University of California, Davis.

MORE COSTS ON CALIFORNIA

Excluding illegal immigrants from food stamps, health programs and other services means the costs to those programs will not go up, Peri said, a key element in winning support for the immigration overhaul from fiscal conservatives.

But that could mean that the state will have to step in and pick up some of the cost.

"It may wind up imposing more local costs on California," said Manuel Pastor, an author of the USC study.

The median income for an illegal immigrant working full-time in California is $20,600 per year, the USC study showed. Those earnings are below the $23,550 considered to be the poverty level for a family of four nationwide, and considerably less than the $35,325 that the authors say constitutes poverty in an expensive state like California.

By comparison, the median income for a U.S.-born worker in the state is about $50,000, the study showed.

"California has nearly a quarter of the nation's unauthorized immigrants and they're deeply woven in our society," said Pastor.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Kevin Gray and Mohammad Zargham)

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