Addressing immigration is the best way to ensure health care reform is truly effective -- and score big political points with Latino voters.
Most of the final negotiations over health care have turned on the abortion language, but last week members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus joined the fray, threatening to vote "no" on the Senate version because it prohibits undocumented immigrants from participating in insurance exchanges. In a recent appearance on On the Record, Illinois Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez pledged to vote down the bill, saying it prevented undocumented immigrants from abiding by the requirement that everyone have health insurance.
"They're complying with the law," he said. "So what are we going to do? They [also] can't pay their taxes because it's administered by the government?" The House bill only bars undocumented immigrants from receiving subsidies to buy insurance, but because of the gridlock in the Senate, the plan is for the House to pass the Senate bill before it goes through reconciliation.
On the eve of a massive immigration-rights demonstration planned in Washington on Sunday, some commentators have speculated that immigrant-rights advocates in Congress are using their votes as leverage to push for much-needed immigration reform. Indeed, without the 23 members of the Hispanic caucus, Democrats have little chance of corralling the 216 votes they need to pass health care. Ultimately, these legislators are expected to vote yes, but the Obama administration should immediately turn to overhauling the immigration system. Not only is it badly needed for its own sake, it is the logical extension of health-care reform -- and a no-brain political win for the Democrats.
Barring an entire class of people from access to health care is in itself deeply immoral, but it also undermines the very goal of health-care reform. As Andrew Romano at Newsweek has pointed out, health-care costs of undocumented immigrants are about half of what they are for most Americans given that this group tends to be younger and healthier than the general population. Including this low-risk group in the pool will decrease premiums for the rest of us. It will also alleviate the cost to the state of uninsured hospital visits that end up adding over $1,000 to premiums each year. Ezra Klein notes that, for those concerned about undocumented immigrants taking American jobs, requiring coverage removes the cost incentive of hiring those who do not require health insurance. Unfortunately, there is little hope of amending this provision of the Senate bill -- it cannot be done through reconciliation -- so the only way of reaping these benefits is to make "illegal" immigrants legal.
Despite Nancy Pelosi's assurance that the Dems won't take on any other controversial issues this year, immigration reform is also, as Kai Wright argues, an area in which Dems are better off "picking a fight with the GOP than running from one." Wright mentions that Obama's call for immigration reform during the 2008 campaign helped him carry 67 percent of the Latino vote -- a number that surpassed Kerry's 53 in 2004 -- but Democrats should look beyond the midterms. Hispanics currently make up 15 percent of the population, but they account for over half of the population growth. By 2050, over 30 percent of Americans will be of Latino heritage. Passing immigration reform will help strengthen the appeal of Democrats' for this voting bloc, and children tend to inherit their parents' party affiliation. A strong stand on immigration has the potential to yield dividends for decades.
Republicans may have had some recent success courting Hispanic voters, but the surge of xenophobic Tea Partiers -- white, rural voters in their 50s and 60s whose demographic shrinks by the day -- and the absence of moderate Republicans to temper their extremism provides a perfect political opportunity for Democrats. Pelosi may be right that a fight over immigration would be contentious, but the racist outbursts it would inevitably spark can only be good for Democrats; they would expose xenophobia on the right, making it clear that when Republicans court Latinos with appeals to "family values," they really only value certain families.
In many ways, President Obama has been worse than his predecessor on immigration issues. Despite his campaign promise to provide a path to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country, he has stepped up border security and increased the number of deportations by 50 percent. These overtures may be meant to appeal to Americans' concerns for border security, but without the "reform" part to the "reform and enforce" equation, the administration's policies differ little from what Lou Dobbs advocates.
Americans like to think of their country as a haven, but our immigration policies reflect little of this; they limit the number of immigrants, require applicants to live abroad as they apply, and make people wait years before decisions are made. Sadly, we've progressed little since César Chávez helped unionize farm workers in the '70s and '80s. There is a failure to recognize that, as Congressman Gutierrez said about health care, "germs do not understand boundaries" -- and today's immigrants are tomorrow's voting Americans.
Gabriel Arana is on staff at The American Prospect. He lives in Washington, D.C.