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Montco aid hearing takes illegal-immigrant turn

It was one of those resolutions in the middle of a half-empty Montgomery County commissioners meeting that might normally have passed without notice:

It was one of those resolutions in the middle of a half-empty Montgomery County commissioners meeting that might normally have passed without notice:

A county health administrator on Thursday asked the commissioners to authorize using $161,000 in federal grants to educate and assist pregnant women at a Norristown hospital.

The initiative was a decade old, and has never cost the county any money.

As he has before, Commission Chairman James Matthews voted for the program. But he did so only after launching into an inquiry that seemed less about aid to a small group of women than the county's future.

Didn't the program's reputation extend beyond Montgomery County? Matthews asked the county's infant-health coordinator, Barbara Hand.

It did, she said.

"Does it go as far as Mexico?" he wondered.

Some in the crowd chuckled. Matthews did not.

He said the "vast majority" of the 150 or so women served by the program this year were illegal immigrants, mostly from Mexico. And he worried that it signaled a trend.

"It's now become a beacon to bring pregnant, undocumented families here," he said, "because they know they can get treated."

It was the first time that Matthews, a Republican and commissioner since 2000, whose actions have occasionally put him at odds with his party, voiced such a view.

The comments came as Matthews tried to mend an infamous feud with fellow GOP Commissioner Bruce Castor and as he declared his desire for a cabinet slot if Republican Tom Corbett wins the governor's race in November.

But they also touched on an issue, illegal immigration, that has simmered in Norristown during the decade, and could rise again as Matthews and his counterparts vie for reelection next year.

No one disputes the influx of Mexicans to Montgomery County, particularly its county seat. Census figures indicate that Norristown's Mexican population more than doubled - to about 4,000 - during the last decade. (The census figures have wide error margins and don't always reflect undocumented immigrants.)

Five years ago, borough officials shelved a plan to limit overcrowded apartments after some complained it unfairly targeted Mexican labors.

The program discussed Thursday stems from a federal grant under Title V of the Social Security Act, which offers health services for mothers and children. The program has aided 2,063 pregnant women in the county since 2000, according to Health Department spokeswoman Harriet Morton. The services were once split between Montgomery Hospital Medical Center and Mercy Suburban Hospital, but now occur just at the former.

About "95 percent" of the women who received the assistance this year are illegal immigrants, Morton said.

During an appearance for his 2007 commissioner's campaign, filmed by a blogger and posted on YouTube, Matthews was more charitable about the program.

"We're not going to shut the door on someone who comes in, in that situation," he said, noting it wasn't a county expense.

Speaking to reporters after the commissioners' meeting Thursday, Matthews pointed to a series of immigration raids in town a year or so ago as a key moment in shaping his thinking.

After the raids, he said, he noticed one of his favorite restaurants had closed and a neighboring car wash had an entirely new workforce. Both establishments, he surmised, had been staffed by undocumented workers who took local jobs.

Matthews noted reports of thousands of Mexicans streaming over the Arizona border and said he believed Pennsylvania had become an appealing destination because of day-labor opportunities and programs such as the prenatal-care initiative.

"Where are they going?" he asked. "They are going to go where they can get care."

His fellow commissioners didn't share his views on the issue.

"With all due respect to the chairman, I'm not sure that people in Mexico are there saying: Let's go to Norristown!" Democrat Joe Hoeffel said.

Castor barely weighed in on the issue, except to quip: "They don't come here for the funding. They come here for the awesome government and the funding."

In the end, Matthews voted with his counterparts to approve the resolution. He said he had done so because he worried that educating and aiding pregnant women was ultimately much cheaper than paying for treatment and complications after they gave birth.

"It's a conundrum," he said.