Review of GOP Attacks on Health Provisions for Some Immigrants: Ranging from "Half-True" to "False"

Rep. Joe Wilson’s heckling of President Obama has pushed the issue of illegal immigrants to the fore of the healthcare-reform debate.

It has also raised issues of legislative civility, but we’ll look at the illegal immigrant question first.

Representative Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina, became instantly famous after he shouted “You lie!” at Mr. Obama during the president’s speech to Congress on Wednesday night. The moment came after Obama had said that illegals wouldn’t be covered by Democratic health-reform efforts.

Problem is, based on the language included in all proposed Democratic bills, Obama was correct in his assertion. Virtually all fact-checking organizations agree.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning website PolitiFact, for example, rates Wilson’s charge on this particular point to be “false.”

However, Republicans in general charge that since none of the bills contain enforcement mechanisms to check that recipients of government subsidies are legal, illegal immigrants would be able to sneak into the system and get US cash anyway.

The House bill, for instance, is silent on the enforcement question, PolitiFact notes.

“It’s possible that illegal immigrants who are determined to beat the system might be able to get around the ban,” PolitiFact concludes.

However, if the subsidies are delivered as tax credits, enforcement would be automatic. Illegals by definition do not have valid Social Security numbers. The Internal Revenue Service could probably screen out such applications.

In addition, there is nothing in any of the bills that would prevent a new US health-choices commission from setting up an enforcement mechanism on its own. Such a system could be introduced when the government issues the detailed regulations that would be used to implement any healthcare bill.

Taking all this into account, PolitiFact rates the GOP charges on the enforcement question and illegals to be “half-true.”

Current health-reform bills in both the House and Senate don’t explicitly mention how illegal immigrants would be treated under some other important provisions.

All bills, for instance, would mandate that individuals in the United States have health insurance coverage. Illegals who have not been in the country for a sustained period of time would not be subject to this requirement, notes a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on this issue.

But it is possible for individuals who are in the country illegally to be classified as “resident aliens,” the CRS report notes. This is a term recognized by tax but not immigration law.

Resident aliens have to have been in the US for 31 days in the tax year in question, plus at least 183 days during the current year and previous two years. (Yes, this kind of thing is why tax law is so complicated.)

“Unauthorized aliens who qualify as resident aliens … would be required [under the House bill] to have health insurance,” the CRS report concludes.

CRS also notes that nothing would bar illegals from participating in the insurance exchanges that would be set up under most House and Senate reform bills. Thus illegals might benefit from the lower prices and improved benefits that proponents predict such exchanges would provide.

As to civility, Wilson called the White House to apologize following his outburst. He has said he considers that to be sufficient, and he has no plans to apologize in a speech on the House floor.

But Democratic leaders said Friday that they will probably proceed with a resolution of disapproval against Wilson if he does not apologize again in the more public forum of the House. Wilson’s words clearly violate House rules of decorum, Democrats say.

“On these issues I will not be muzzled,” said Wilson in a video posted on his campaign website. “I will speak up and speak loudly about this risky plan.”

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