Unspinning the Tall Tales About Immigrants and Health Care

The health care town hall circus this August had a recurrent sideshow: the illegal immigration paper tiger. The well-scripted disruption tactics by antireform activists played up one patently false claim after another. One of the most prevalent was the ungrounded assertion that undocumented immigrants will receive health care benefits in the legislative proposals before Congress.


The coordinated efforts of status-quo activists culminated in one of the more embarrassing public outbursts in recent memory: an elected representative shouting at the president during his prime time address to Congress and the nation. It will be a long time before we forget Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC), in a rabid froth, interrupting the president’s speech to call him a liar.

Representative Wilson’s outburst and underlying charge—that the president’s plan will cover illegal immigrants—mimics the tactics and talking points of the status quo caucus. They have made clear that they will pursue any means—including false claims and ad hominem attacks—to derail both health care and immigration reform. Alleging that undocumented immigrants will get benefits is their go-to strategy to inflame a debate.

But this debate is too important to allow falsehoods to go unrebutted, so it’s time (yet again) to set the record straight:

Falsehood #1: Illegal immigrants will get taxpayer benefits under the health care reform proposals under consideration.

Fact: Every proposal on the table explicitly disqualifies illegal immigrants from receiving federal benefits. See the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee bill, Section 151 and the Energy-Commerce Committee bill, Section 246. All reports from the Senate Finance Committee deliberations indicate there will be similar restrictions contained in the bill they plan to unveil.

Falsehood #2: There won’t be any verification mechanisms to ensure illegal immigrants don’t receive benefits under these proposals.

Fact: Some verification process will be required under a new program to enforce the explicit prohibition on benefits to undocumented immigrants. The federal government already utilizes verification mechanisms like the Department of Homeland Security-administered SAVE Program. Opponents of reform cite the defeat of the verification amendments to health care legislation during House committee markups as proof that “illegals” will benefit from health care reform. In fact, by defeating the overly restrictive amendments committee members preserved critical administrative flexibility in defining the most effective verification process.

Falsehood #3: An ironclad citizenship verification mechanism will protect U.S. taxpayers and reduce costs by preventing illegal immigrants from receiving benefits.

Fact: We already know from recent experience that overly burdensome citizenship verification requirements in the Medicaid and Medicare contexts have created obstacles for U.S. citizens while failing to identify undocumented immigrants or save taxpayer money. One of the central goals of health care reform is to break down barriers to access. The implementing agencies must have the flexibility to establish processes that maximize participation by citizens while barring undocumented immigrants from the program.

Falsehood #4: Illegal immigrants are a vast part of the uninsured population and removing them will solve the health care crisis.

Fact: We have approximately 46.3 million uninsured people in this country, and less than 7 million of those individuals are undocumented immigrants. That means 40 million Americans are uninsured. Solving the illegal immigration problem—important in its own right—will not solve the health care crisis.

Falsehood #5: Illegal immigrants consume large quantities of health care resources.

Fact: Illegal immigrants are already ineligible for Medicaid and Medicare and will remain so under current proposals. In fact, even legal immigrants—in one of our most astonishingly regressive federal health care policies—are ineligible for Medicaid for a five-year period. Immigrants across the board use fewer health care resources—from fewer office visits to fewer emergency room visits—than U.S. citizens. The argument that illegal immigrants are the cause of our health care woes is simply untenable.

Ultimately, the only way to remove this distracting sideshow from the national stage is to enact comprehensive immigration reform. We can make debates about benefits to illegal immigrants an historical relic by requiring illegal immigrants to register, get screened, pay taxes, learn English, and earn citizenship. Health reform and immigration reform are dual national imperatives. Unfortunately, both are under assault by the status quo caucus.

Opponents of health and immigration reform are in the minority and on the wrong side of history. But they have committed to use any method—including fanning the flames of fear—to stall progress. CAP will continue to fight those fires with facts and stand with the American majority in promoting solutions to the major policy challenges of this era.

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