Latino leaders riled by role of immigration in health-reform debate

Latino lawmakers had long ago given up on the idea that illegal immigrants would receive any sort of subsidized health insurance under a health care reform bill, even if there are strong economic, public health and moral arguments to support the idea. But what they hadn’t expected – at least not before Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst earlier this month – was that immigrants would be scapegoated in the health-care debate to such an extent that undocumented immigrants would be denied the opportunity even to purchase market-based private health insurance with their own money. That development, and other possible provisions of the Senate Finance Committee health care bill introduced by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., which may also exclude legal immigrants from the benefits of a new health-care system, threatens to undermine Latino support for Democratic lawmakers in the 2010 elections.

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., at the President's joint-session address on health reform, 9 Sept. 2009 (WDCpix)
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., at the President's joint-session address on health reform, 9 Sept. 2009 (WDCpix)

The Senate’s markup of the bill begins Tuesday.

“We understood that undocumented immigrants would get no taxpayer subsidy, and that there would be a verification system,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., in a conference call last week organized by the immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice. “We said ‘okay.’ Bitter pills were swallowed,” said Gutierrez, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. But soon after Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., publicly called President Obama a liar, said Gutierrez, “the White House started saying that illegal immigrants cannot even purchase health care on the free market health care exchange.”

After Obama in his September 9 speech said that under his health care plan, everyone “will be required to carry basic health insurance”, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that President Obama had never meant to allow illegal immigrants to participate in the health care exchange included as part of the proposal.

Gutierrez recalled that he was the first member of the Hispanic Congressional caucus to support Barack Obama for president, and “we galvanized the whole community to support him.” Obama had promised to bring illegal immigrants “out of the shadows” and provide “a path to legalization,” Gutierrez recalled. “That’s the president I voted for. Not one that said you can’t have health care even if you can pay for it.” Now, he added: “We’re revisiting support for health care reform.”

Latino religious leaders have similarly expressed their disappointment with Democrats who they’d previously supported and warn that they risk losing Latino support if the final bill, being worked out this week, ends up penalizing immigrants.

“Senate Democrats with the apparent support of the White House have rushed to deny undocumented immigrants the chance to use even their own money to pay for private health care,” said Rev. Luis Cortez, president of Esperanza, the largest evangelical Latino organization in the country, on the conference call last week. “We are seeing a demonizing of immigrant people,” he said, adding: “The political price is going to be high for both parties.”

“We were hopeful that the Democratic party which controls the Senate, and controls the House, and controls the executive wing was going to bring sanity to the conversation about immigration and comprehensive immigration reform,” he said. “If this is the beginning of the conversation, all we can look at as Hispanic people . . . is to look at every election and try to punish every individual regardless of their political party who denies rights to legal immigrants as well as who tries to punish those who are the poorest and most defenseless people in the country.”

In addition to the ban on illegal immigrants ability to participate in the health care exchange, immigrants’ advocates and Latino leaders worry that there’s little discussion of ending the current 5-year ban on even legal immigrants’ access to Medicaid and other health benefits. Although Sens. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., have all either sponsored or co-sponsored legislation to eliminate the five-year waiting period, such proposals do not seem to be winning much support.

On the contrary, the outline of the bill released last week also suggested that there might be “a two-year waiting period for any affordability credits for legal immigrants,” said Eric Rodriguez, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, last week. Meanwhile, legal immigrants in households where some members are not documented will have only limited access to benefits. “We’ve got to change the way this debate is unfolding,” Rodriguez said.

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