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Right-Wingers Are Stirring Up Xenophobia to Swiftboat Health Reform

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 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.) 

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