Misleading people is really the only option for those bent on killing the reform movement.
Along with death and taxes, a third thing of which one can be certain is that conservative politicians will exploit Americans’ concerns about illegal immigration to rally opposition to any policy that might help ordinary working people.
The specter of unauthorized migrants sucking hungrily from the public teat is a tried-and-true method of turning people against their own interests.
We heard the narrative used to attack the stimulus package, federal aid to needy families, housing assistance and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP).
Forget about how these measures might impact their constituents -- lawmakers told us they had to oppose them to prevent hard-working Americans from being forced to subsidize foreigners who had broken the law. It fits neatly within the larger right-populist memes that fuel much of the immigration debate -- an out-of-control government that doesn’t only fail to uphold the law, but also, unimaginably, offers benefits to "illegal aliens" that are denied to ordinary Americans.
So it was inevitable that the unsettled and emotionally charged issue of immigration would be used as a cudgel against health reform. And it has -- not only by the usual motley crew of factually challenged pundits and radio hate-jocks, but by a number of conservative lawmakers.
It is nothing short of a Big Lie. The bill passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee says: "Eligible individuals are citizens or lawfully admitted permanent residents of the U.S." In the House, a section of the Tri-Committee bill titled "NO FEDERAL PAYMENT FOR UNDOCUMENTED ALIENS," states unequivocally: "Nothing in this subtitle shall allow federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States."
As the saying goes, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. Yet the facts haven’t prevented Republicans opposed to Democrats’ health proposals from claiming the opposite to be true.
Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., drawled to reporters, "This health care plan, Obamacare, is going to give every single one of those illegal aliens health insurance at the cost of taxpayers." Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., came up with the exquisitely moronic talking point, "if you don’t like illegal immigration, then you’re not going to like this bill either." Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, even went so far as to issue a press release falsely claiming that a Congressional Budget Office analysis projected that the House health legislation would cover 5.6 million unauthorized immigrants by 2019.
Of course, the CBO never said any such thing. Because just as the idea that we don’t sink an enormous amount of resources into punishing those who break our immigration laws is patently false, so too is the entire issue of unauthorized immigrants getting Cadillac benefits from the government. The nonpartisan FactCheck.org noted, "illegal immigrants aren’t eligible for federal health programs under current law."
They’re right. The reality is that the whole issue is a red herring -- the U.S. denies virtually all public benefits to unauthorized immigrants. In fact, we even restrict their availability to legal immigrants.
The very few exceptions to that rule amount to a miniscule fraction of public budgets. And they're for reasons that most people would agree are eminently reasonable.
At least, that’s my opinion. Here are the facts -- you decide whether they constitute a "free lunch for illegal immigrants," as some claim.
The 1996 welfare law (the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act" for those scoring at home), which governs all federal benefits for the poor (not just health benefits), divides noncitizens into two categories in terms of eligibility for government assistance: "qualified" and "not qualified." All unauthorized immigrants are "not qualified," but there are also limitations on public benefits for "qualified" legal immigrants. (Even if they work and pay taxes and have all their papers in order, they’re still ineligible for the first five years of their residency.)
That means that even without the rather clear wording in the health bills released so far, unauthorized immigrants would still be ineligible for benefits under the legislation, just as they are for Medicare, Medicaid, S-CHIP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), foster care, adoption assistance, the Child Care and Development Fund, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, most federal food programs, unemployment insurance, low-income federal housing and everything else the federal government offers citizens and eligible permanent residents.
Also contrary to popular belief, a person can’t simply offer up a fake Social Security number and access benefits from which he or she is barred. Another piece of Clinton-era legislation, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IRRIRA), requires federal, state and local agencies administering any federal benefit to independently verify the immigration and citizenship status of all applicants.
Now let’s look at those exceptions. As a matter of policy, we don’t let human beings simply die in the streets if their papers aren’t in order. In 2001, the Department of Justice published a list of services that were deemed "necessary to protect life or safety," and these are exempt from immigration checks. They include emergency health care, protective services, soup kitchens, disaster relief, public shelters, public vaccination programs and similar services. Then there are school breakfast and lunch programs that are open to all, as are programs like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
There are also certain categories of authorized immigrants that are exempt from the five-year waiting period, including victims of human trafficking, refugees, people granted asylum, Cuban and Haitian entrants waiting to be processed, as well as a few other groups.
Contrary to the right-populist mythology that out-of-touch bureaucrats are coming up with massive handouts that attract undocumented immigrants from around the world, these exceptions -- a drop in the federal budgetary bucket -- are generally based on common sense.
Offering emergency services to everyone is a matter of basic human rights. Prenatal care, school lunches and other child services are an investment in the next generation, and a majority of young foreign-born children will eventually become permanent residents and members of our workforce; those born here to migrant parents are already U.S. citizens. Vaccination programs are essential to building "herd immunity" that protects foreign- and native-born alike.
Anti-immigration hard-liners may well oppose even those very modest social protections offered to that small number of undocumented immigrants. But rather than honestly argue that we in fact shouldn’t protect battered women from abusive spouses unless they have valid papers, or that we shouldn’t feed undocumented school kids or evacuate unauthorized immigrants from flooded areas -- arguments that would expose the degree of animosity in their hearts -- they prefer to push the Big Lie that people are coming from around the world to get "free premium health care" courtesy of Medicare, Medicaid and similar programs.
A final irony is that those members of Congress who peddle such myths also tend to be the same lawmakers who oppose the kind of comprehensive systemic fixes to the country's approach to immigration control that might actually reduce the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
Given the degree to which some right-wingers use the issue against just about every halfway progressive policy that comes along, one almost has to wonder whether they’re actually "pro-illegal-immigration" themselves.
After all, if the U.S. ever managed to successfully do away with the phenomenon entirely, a lot of these politicians would lose their favorite argument -- false, but reliable in stirring up passions -- against just about everything under the sun.