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May 4, 2015

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Republicans’ red herring

Politicians use fear of benefits for illegal immigrants to hold up social services bills

In the recent debate over funding health insurance for children, several Republican members of Congress opposed the idea because of fears that more illegal immigrants would sign up for the program.

The opposition included Nevada’s Rep. Dean Heller and Sen. John Ensign, who said he thought the bill would encourage more people to come to the United States to “get on the government dole.”

The bills included provisions to strengthen verification of citizenship, noted Chuck Duarte, overseer of the state’s health insurance program for children.

Duarte said that evidence suggests few if any illegal immigrants defraud the program currently. Finding any examples was “like chasing ghosts,” he said.

The bills passed despite the opposition, but there’s a take-home lesson: Until Congress changes immigration laws, some policymakers will continue to interject immigration in discussions about domestic programs, particularly those involving social services.

That could hold up expanding existing programs or introducing new ones, even as unemployment rates reach the highest levels in a generation.

The solution would be to confront the issue once and for all. Congress attempted to do just that through a 2007 bill that would have offered a path to citizenship for millions while creating a guest worker program and increasing enforcement at the borders. The bill failed.

“The immigration system is broken and there are a lot of people who live in this country who are not legal citizens,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a Washington-based think tank and advocacy organization. “So the issue of whether benefits are conferred upon them will come up again and again.”

Rosenberg said attaching the issue of immigration to other policy questions creates “proxy fights,” a waste of time and political momentum. Debate on the Children’s Health Insurance Program quickly became a setting for one of those proxy fights, he noted.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, claimed there was “no verification system to speak of ... in the bill.” Correspondent Lisa Sylvester aired the claim on CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight.” During her report, the phrase “illegal alien bailout” flashed on the screen.

Donna Cohen Ross, director of outreach at the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said she was not surprised. Still, after studying the House bill’s language, she concluded that there was “nothing about the rules that would allow illegal immigrants to use the program.”

Duarte noted that previous national research on Medicaid, which provides health insurance to families earning less than families in the children’s program, also suggests that use by illegal immigrants “is not an issue.”

Rosenberg said the back-and-forth over the benefit to illegal immigrants will likely be seen again when the federal stimulus package begins trickling down to states.

He expects debate over whether the package should fund certain infrastructure — say, school repairs. Undocumented immigrant children attend public schools, after all.

As the same time, he notes, “people blame the government and businesses much more than the immigrants themselves” when it comes to immigration. They want Congress to fix the system.

Harley Shaiken, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley, is not sure that “proxy fights” on the issue will lead to any fixes soon. He thinks the outcome will be “Republicans painting themselves into a corner ... and they could go from opposition to self-parody.”

The economy and its solutions will continue to take precedence, and “the timetable on immigration will continue to be open,” Shaiken said.

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