Citizenship proof policy irks disabled vets
Posted : Saturday Oct 17, 2009 17:02:01 EDT
SALT LAKE CITY — Thousands of disabled military veterans are being asked to prove their U.S. citizenship to qualify for a property-tax break in Salt Lake County, a side effect of a new stricter state immigration law that is generating criticism.
According to the county, disabled veterans aren't exempt from the law passed earlier this year by the Utah Legislature that requires governments to verify that those receiving a "public benefit" are living in the country legally.
The treasurer's office has sent notices to more than 3,500 wounded or ill veterans requiring them to attest to their citizenship or provide paperwork proving their legal status to qualify for the tax break.
Terry Schow, executive director of the Utah Department of Veteran Affairs, said he knows of no other Utah counties taking such an approach to the new law.
"These guys have gone through enough in their lives," Schow told the Salt Lake Tribune. "Don't place an extra burden on disabled veterans by requiring them to jump through these hoops."
But County Treasurer Larry Richardson argues he simply followed the law. The district attorney's office advised him that property-tax relief — even for disabled vets — is a public benefit.
"If there is something I'm supposed to do to comply with the law, I'm going to do it," he said. "That is what I call integrity."
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, calls it a gross misinterpretation of the law, which he co-sponsored. The intent, he says, was to ensure that undocumented immigrants aren't accessing public benefits such as food stamps, not to pile paperwork on veterans.
"That is absolutely appalling," Noel said. "What in the world were they thinking?"
But the trouble, county officials say, is the law leaves room for interpretation.
"It was clear that those receiving benefits needed to prove residency," District Attorney Lohra Miller said. "As ridiculous as the result might be, that was the intent. It was not ambiguous."
Veteran Johnnie Janes, who battles cancer because of his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, refused to fill out the paperwork.
"I immediately took offense to it," said Janes, who heads the state's Veterans Advisory Council. "Having volunteered to serve in the armed forces, I felt there was no reason to verify that I was a legal alien."
County Council Chairman Joe Hatch characterized the $3,300 mass mailing as an "enormous waste of government dollars" that placed an undue burden on veterans.
So far, officials have found no disabled vets in the county who are in the U.S. unlawfully. The military doesn't recruit people who aren't citizens or legal residents.
Jerald Terwilliger, National Chairman
American Cold War Veterans, Inc