National Immigration Forum

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Waiting for Bipartisanship

September 18, 2009 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

Watching the health care debate unfold in the Senate has been a little like being in a Samuel Beckett play.  The Finance Committee Chair has given in on a number of issues in order to attract Committee Republicans.  This has been going on for weeks.  Some of the compromises made have been in response to anti-immigrant extremists—those who, for example, have insisted that health care reform proposals being considered would give taxpayer-subsidized health insurance to undocumented immigrants.  (They are not eligible under any proposal.)  The “Chairman’s Mark” would even prohibit undocumented immigrants from purchasing insurance in the proposed state insurance exchanges.  (And this appears to be in response to White House efforts to prevent undocumented immigrants from benefiting from the health care overhaul.) Individuals will be subject to identity checks to make sure they are citizens or legal residents before purchasing insurance on these exchanges. 


With the scramble to mollify immigration restrictionists, immigrants and Latinos have not been treated well in this debate.  Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), speaking on a panel at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute on September 16, blasted the White House for its endorsement of keeping undocumented immigrants from purchasing health insurance in the insurance exchanges—accusing the White House of giving Rep. Joe Wilson “exactly what he wants.”  (Wilson is the ill-mannered Congressman from South Carolina who accused the President of lying when Mr. Obama told a joint session of Congress that his health care reform plan would not cover undocumented immigrants.


The National Immigration Law Center and the National Council of La Raza, which have been spearheading the policy work to include immigrants in health care reform, have both issued statements on these developments.  See NCLR’s statement here, and NILC’s statement here.


For his part, the President, speaking at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Gala on September 16, reiterated that he does not believe that “we can extend coverage to those who are here illegally,” saying that he has made a “commitment” to exclude undocumented immigrants.  At the same time, the President reiterated his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform.  “If anything, this debate underscores the necessity of passing comprehensive immigration reform and resolving the issue of 12 million undocumented people living and working in this country once and for all.”


Still, all the bending over backwards to satisfy the concerns of extremists will do the most harm to low-income citizens.  It’s been tried before, when Congress imposed new ID requirements for receiving Medicaid. 


Bad policy aside, what has been gained for reformers, politically, by all these compromises?  The subheading to the story in the Washington Post on September 17 sums it up: “Attempt at Compromise in Senate Draws No GOP Support.” 


The Chairman’s Mark (not yet in actual legislative language) will be marked up (amended) in the Finance Committee beginning next week.

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