Editorial: Unhealthy and unjust

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD
  • Updated: September 30, 2012 - 7:13 PM

Why let young immigrants stay but deny health benefits?

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Gaby Pacheco, 27, of Miami, an illegal immigrant originally from Ecuador, cries while watching President Obama announce that the U.S. government will stop deporting and begin granting work permits to younger illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and have since led law-abiding lives, Friday, June 15, 2012, in Washington.

Photo: Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

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The Obama administration received much-deserved praise in June for granting a temporary reprieve from fear of deportation to qualified undocumented immigrants who, through no fault of their own, were brought to the United States as children. But in a seeming contradiction, the Department of Health and Human Services is denying health benefits to recipients of the "deferred deportation status."

That means those immigrants granted permission to stay in the United States for a renewable two-year period cannot benefit from federal health insurance coverage, including Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program and the Affordable Health Care Act. The White House says that qualified applicants have a "lawful presence" to pursue work in the United States, but not all legal rights. But the parsing of these rights seems arbitrary, since, for instance, they can obtain driver's licenses.

Up to 1.7 million young people could benefit from the deferred status program, but when it comes to health coverage, they're caught in something of a Catch-22. Undocumented immigrants are eligible for health care in emergency rooms, under a measure passed in the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, that requires all patients to be treated, insured or not.

But in reshaping U.S. health care policy, the Obama administration severely cut funding to hospitals offering services to immigrants, from $20 billion in reimbursements annually to only about half that amount by 2019. And let's face it, emergency care is more expensive than routine medical care. "It tends to require people to be extremely sick to receive care," John Keller of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota told a Star Tribune editorial writer.

To qualify for deferred status, young immigrants must have lived in the country five continuous years or more, attend school or serve in the military, and have no criminal record. It's a humane stopgap measure in lieu of Congress' unwillingness to work on comprehensive immigration reform. Denying recipients' health coverage is pure politics, to stave off charges by Republicans that the Affordable Health Care Act is socialized medicine or a giant welfare program.

In election-year politics, these deserving young people are the big losers when it comes to health care.

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