News Analysis: Health Care Reform Turns into an Immigration Debate for Some

By Pilar Marrero, La Opinión and FI2W reporter

Health care reform opponents in West Hartford, Conn. (Photo: ragesoss/flickr)

Health care reform opponents in West Hartford, Conn. (Photo: ragesoss/Flickr - Click to visit.)

This Wednesday, President Obama is scheduled to give a major speech on health care reform before a joint session of Congress. The speech comes after weeks of controversy over various proposals and their real or imagined effects on the country. Some groups have focused not on the details of how to cover more people, lower the cost of care, or improve the health of Americans, but on how immigrants fit into the equation.

When a Congressional Research Office report surfaced recently analyzing the treatment of immigrants (documented and not) under one of the pending health care reform bills, some took it to mean… well, the exact opposite of what the CRO found.

The Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a Washington lobbyist group with an immigration restriction agenda, claimed it confirmed their worst fears: that illegal aliens would get health care coverage on the government’s dime.

“Congressional Research Agency Confirms Illegal Aliens Will Get Health Benefits Under House Bill,” claimed the headline, still at the top of FAIR’s website on Monday.

There is just one problem with that assertion: if you read the CRO report, it says the complete opposite.

In fact, the CRO report says that the bill in question (H.R. 3200) does not include any language that changes the status quo on what unauthorized immigrants and recently legalized foreigners can get from the government: very few services.

The CRO found that undocumented immigrants will not be able to get the credits available to those who will buy coverage through the so-called health care exchange — a market of insurance companies, and potentially the government, that would be available only to those who are not otherwise insured.

“In order to have access to the credits under section 242 of H.R. 3200, individuals must be legally present in the United States and not in the country temporarily,” the report says.

Keep in mind the insurance exchange would be a place where one could buy subsidized insurance. But under this plan, the undocumented get no subsidy.

FAIR argues that there are no verification mechanisms in the bill and that this proves that the undocumented would benefit from the plan.

The administration of President Barack Obama has said time and again that including the undocumented would create “a lot of resistance.”

The “resistance” became clear a couple of weeks ago in New Hampshire, when a group of health care reform opponents of at one of the famous “town halls” expressed the sentiment more openly: “We do not need illegal immigrants. Deport them to their countries.”

At the same time, activists are struggling to expand coverage for another particularly vulnerable group that does not qualify for public assistance: legal immigrants in their first five years of residence in the United States.

“Under the proposals, they are still excluded from public programs like Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) in the first years of their residency,” said Jennifer Ng’andu of the National Council of La Raza, a pro-immigrant organization in Washington, D.C. “In addition, they will be required to buy insurance like everyone else, but it’s not as easy to get coverage if they are poor.”

The proposals stipulate that legal residents in their first five years be excluded from other public programs if they have access to subsidized insurance in the so-called insurance exchange, where competition should lower insurance premiums.

Part of the problem with inconsistencies in Latino health care coverage, activists say, is that the Latino leadership has failed to show courage in defense of their community.

Dr. Jane Delgado, president of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health Care, said that groups like hers “have been part of the discussion since the first day.”

But Ng’andu said that she is “worried that our national leadership is silent on these issues. In both parties,” she said. “Latinos have not had a loud voice.”

Rosalío Muñoz, a Los Angeles activist and founder of Latinos for Health Reform, explains that Latinos in Congress have been active, but she says more must be done to strengthen their voices in the debate.

“The Latino caucus was involved with the black and Asian caucuses to present the necessary reforms to their communities. Congressman Raul Grijalva of Arizona has been a leader on this,” Muñoz said. “What we have not had until now, and this is a mistake, is a bilingual town hall or public meeting in Latino communities.”

According to figures from the Pew Hispanic Center, 59 percent of undocumented immigrants, 29 percent of Latino documented residents, and 14 percent of Latino U.S. citizens are uninsured.

José Calderón, a sociologist at Pitzer College, says health care is providing a preview of what will happen when Congress debates comprehensive immigration reform.

“Some people are using the immigration issue to build opposition to (health care) reform, like they are using other issues to scare people,” Calderón said. “This is part of the immigration debate and it gives us a taste of what we can expect with immigration reform.”