ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on whether the state statute on Permanent Fund dividend eligibility discriminates against some legal aliens.
The class-action lawsuit was brought by legal immigrants who allege that the Permanent Fund statute is too restrictive and at odds with federal immigration law.
It seeks to allow all legal aliens who intend to stay in Alaska to collect dividend checks once they satisfy the residency requirement of one calendar year.
Plaintiffs allege the state statute discriminates against legal immigrants awaiting asylum, permanent residency or refugee status.
Neil Slotnick, deputy commissioner of the Department of Revenue, said there is nothing wrong with the state statute. He encouraged the court to allow the agency's appeals process to continue to handle rejected applications.
One of the five justices seemed skeptical.
''As written, unless someone comes through the door granted asylum, you don't care,'' the justice said. ''You simply deny the claim.''
The plaintiffs want the law changed and an estimated 1,000 legal immigrants to be paid dividends for the years they were declared ineligible. The court made no decision Wednesday.
Slotnick said the plaintiffs had leapfrogged the system by bringing the class-action lawsuit.
''If you are denied, you file an appeal,'' he said.
Plaintiffs' lawyer Jeffrey Scott Moeller accused the state of unfairly excluding long-term immigrants who aren't yet resident aliens.
''The state is saying that certain categories of legal aliens can't intend to be state residents,'' he said.
Margaret Stock, the attorney who filed the lawsuit, said the state's position is spurious. Currently, immigrants begin to clock their first year of Alaska residency only when the federal government grants them permanent U.S. residency, a process that can take years, she said.
''I think it is laughable that the state should go with the appeal process,'' Stock said. ''They are categorically refusing to process dividends.''
Slotnick said the state is not interested in unfairly denying dividend checks.
''The regulation is completely consistent with federal law,'' he said. ''We want to pay everyone that is eligible.''
One of the plaintiffs is Martha Andrade, a Mexican-born woman who moved to Anchorage from California in 1994 with her husband, a native of El Salvador, and their young son. The family applied for PFD checks two years later but were denied. The revenue department said Andrade was granted permanent residency status too late and her husband didn't have it at all. Their U.S.-born sons were denied because their parents weren't eligible to sponsor them.
Andrade and her sons became eligible in 1997 and are now receiving dividends. Her husband remains ineligible.
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