Washington Matters


Sticking It to Illegal Immigrants,
Just to Make a Point

Mark Willen

The Senate health care bill's treatment of illegals is cruel -- and counterproductive.



The House version of the health care bill bars illegal immigrants from receiving any form of government subsidy to help them buy insurance in the exchanges that will be set up to foster competition and reduce the rolls of the uninsured. While the provision is likely to increase costs for the government, employers and individuals because of cost shifting, it is understandable that many Americans would reject the idea of rewarding illegals by providing subsidized insurance.

But the Senate bill goes a dangerous step further, and its immigration provision is much harder to justify. It would prevent illegal immigrants from buying insurance on the state-run exchanges, even if they do so with their own money. This is cruel, stupid and probably unworkable. It is akin to barring illegals from buying food in grocery stores or restaurants and making them get free food in soup kitchens, which are subsidized by private donors and government aid.

Let’s step back for a second and try to view this logically.

First, let’s agree that these people broke the law when they entered the country, and that is a fundamental and unacceptable situation. But they were able to do it over the past two decades because successive administrations looked the other way. Democrats did it, by and large, out of misplaced generosity. Republicans did it, by and large, because employers needed to fill jobs that Americans wouldn’t take for the wages that were available. Instead of treating the problem as a labor issue (which the unions wouldn’t have stood for) or a humanitarian issue (which might have stoked fears that native-born Americans would be overrun by foreigners), Congress and the successive presidents ignored the problem.

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The end result is more than 10 million illegal immigrants now living in the U.S., many of whom are spouses or parents of U.S. citizens. That is the reality that we as a nation must confront. We can’t round them up and deport them, even if we want to. It would cost too much and put too huge a burden on law enforcement.

In the past several years, some real steps have been taken to enforce our laws more strictly. We have tightened our borders, adding thousands more agents and building a fence. We’ve also made it harder for illegals to find jobs by putting more pressure on employers, which undercuts the principal motivation for sneaking across the border. (No doubt the recession helped by drying up construction and service jobs, but that won’t last.) The enforcement steps have had a real effect. Illegal immigration is down, and in fiscal 2009, the Justice Department filed 9% more criminal charges against immigrants, with 16% more prosecutions, than in the previous year.

Slowing the flow is the right thing to do, but it doesn’t help deal with the immigrants already here. Plainly, some will go home if they can’t find jobs and feel persecuted in their daily lives. We can make life uncomfortable for them -- and we are -- but people who have lived here 20 years, established families, have jobs and set down roots aren’t likely to pick up and leave on their own.

Enter the health care debate. When we deny even the right to buy insurance to illegals, we force them to forgo preventive care and ignore minor health problems until they become far more serious -- exactly what the health care bill is designed to prevent. They end up in emergency rooms with serious conditions, where they get far more expensive treatment for free. The hospital passes on the cost to other patients and their insurers, and premiums rise across the board. The government gets stuck with a good share of that. Insurers also lose access to illegal immigrants as customers. Studies have shown that by and large, immigrants are younger and healthier than the general population, so adding them to the insurance pool would lower costs for everyone.

The Senate provision is punitive and immoral, but it is also a case of biting off our noses to spite our faces. Ultimately, we are hurting taxpayers.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the small unconnected steps the government is taking to deal with the immigration problem can’t resolve the larger issue. Only a comprehensive overhaul -- with a realistic plan for dealing with the illegal immigrants already in the U.S. -- can help us move forward.




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