The estimated 390,000 illegal aliens in North Carolina are welcome to spend money on the state's new lottery, but they may not be allowed to collect.
Lottery officials said state law does not prohibit illegal aliens from collecting a prize, but the lottery's claim policies may effectively bar them from getting the money.
N.C. lottery rules require a winner of $600 or more to claim their prize at a lottery office, showing a photo identification and proof of a Social Security number. If the winner doesn't have a Social Security number, the lottery will accept: a U.S. passport, a foreign passport, an identification card issued by another state, a U.S. armed forces identification card, voter registration card or permanent resident card (green card), which is now pink or white.
Typically, illegal aliens cannot legally obtain a Social Security number.
"If they don't have a green card or foreign passport, they're not going to get anything," said lottery spokeswoman Pam Walker. "Because they're likely to be an illegal alien."
An outright ban on jackpots for illegal aliens would put North Carolina in a small minority. As few as two states, Maryland and North Dakota, restrict prizes to legal residents. Most states' guidelines don't address the issue, while states along the Mexican border make no effort to determine residency. One of California's first big prize winners in 1985 was an illegal alien who won $2 million and was promptly deported back to Mexico.
The issue comes just as the illegal immigration debate is boiling over nationally with protests across the country, a congressional showdown and fellow Republicans criticizing President Bush over his policies.
At the same time, North Carolina's lottery is less than a month old in a state with one of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations. One in every five lottery retailers on opening day last month was in a neighborhood where the adult population was at least 10 percent Hispanic, according to an Observer analysis of lottery and demographic data.
It would be unfair to block illegal immigrants from winning, said Sandra Machuca, owner of La Centroamericana convenience store on South Boulevard in Charlotte. She has been selling about $1,000 worth of scratch-off tickets a week. Her biggest winner won $150.
"None of my clients are American," Machuca said. "Whoever wins has a right to the prize. That's why they buy the ticket."
State Controller Robert Powell, who oversees the state's cash flow and accounting, said lottery officials should address the issue.
"If you're here illegally, then there should be at least a legal determination as to whether you should receive the funds," Powell said. "If you're not here in this country legally, I don't know whether you should be eligible to receive lottery winnings."
Powell said he is not proposing a rule one way or the other.
"I'm just saying it ought to be discussed and answered," he said.
Walker said a winner who has no Social Security number but does have required identification will still get paid but at the higher, nonresident tax withholding rate, 30 percent instead of 25 percent.
"Our policy on this mirrors many other states' and there is no intent to prohibit any person from claiming a prize," Walker said. "They simply must have the required identification."
'It's easy to get around the law'
A bill in the S.C. legislature would limit winners to legal residents, but that legislation is stalled in committee. Lottery Director Ernie Passailaigue said winners must give a Social Security number, which effectively bars illegal aliens, but all they need is a friend."It's easy to get around the law," he said. "Just give (the winning ticket) to somebody who has a Social Security number."
Several state lottery Web sites carry warnings about a current lottery scam in which someone claiming to be an illegal immigrant sells a winning ticket for less than its value to avoid the spotlight of claiming the prize. The ticket, of course, is fake, but the fear of scrutiny is not.
Jose Caballero was an illegal alien delivering furniture in San Jose, Calif., when he won the California lottery in 1985. Federal authorities returned him to Mexico after reading news accounts, but he kept his prize.
North Dakota's lottery instituted a policy on April 1 prohibiting illegal aliens from buying tickets or collecting prizes, though director Chuck Keller acknowledged it is impossible to ban the ticket buying and claiming of small prizes.
"As a matter of public policy," Keller said, "an illegal alien should not have the privilege of buying a state service ... nor be able to win a prize."
Education or enforcement?
Nolo Martinez, a former governor's adviser in North Carolina on Latino affairs, said such policies criminalize people who would be paying taxes and want nothing more than to live outside the shadows.
"We're creating a mentality of a police state by suggesting that we're going to bring in immigration enforcement to a game that was designed to benefit education," said Martinez, now with the Center for New North Carolinians at UNC Greensboro.
The Texas lottery is among several southern border states that make no effort to screen for illegal aliens, some of whom likely have won a jackpot at some point, said spokeswoman Leticia Vasquez.
"We're pretty sure that they have," Vasquez said, "but we don't ask them to present any documentation to certify that they're in this country legally. We just ask for photo ID."