Lurching Right on Immigration

Lurching Right on Immigration

By Ruben Navarrette - September 16, 2009

SAN DIEGO -- President Obama has already made three big errors where the issues of health care and illegal immigration intersect, and we're still in the early innings.

Error No. 1: Obama and his advisers should have listened to immigration reform activists who suggested the White House should tackle immigration before health care. Otherwise, the activists warned, concerns that illegal immigrants would get benefits could trip up the health care effort.

One of the narratives pushed by immigration restrictionists is that of immigrants as takers. They say illegal immigrants come here to get on welfare, flood the schools, and soak up medical care. Comically, they also spin a contradictory narrative -- that illegal immigrants take jobs from U.S. workers, their kids don't stay in school, and they all have communicable diseases because they don't visit doctors.

But this administration has a steep learning curve on immigration. It's no wonder why. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, while serving in Congress, declared the issue the new "third rail" in politics and tried to protect conservative Democrats from having to cast tough and no-win votes on proposed legislation to legalize those already here. For whatever reason, the White House decided to take on health care reform this year, and push immigration reform back to next year. And the activists were right about illegal immigration tripping up health care reform.

Error No. 2: Obama's next mistake was putting into his recent congressional address the now-famous line insisting that it simply isn't true illegal immigrants would receive benefits under the health care reform measures currently being debated. If Obama hadn't gone down that road and made such a claim, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., wouldn't have felt compelled to respond with a forceful but tacky: "You lie!"

This isn't to excuse Wilson, who was out of line and who apologized. It's only to say that Obama made a conscious decision to include that language, when he could have left it out. Had he done that, Wilson wouldn't have had his 15 minutes.

So who is right? Here's the most honest answer: It's hard to say. Democrats are correct that most of the reform bills in Congress say that illegal immigrants are not eligible for benefits. But Republicans are also correct that there is no provision for verifying citizenship since Democrats killed those amendments. So we couldn't be sure who is getting what.

By the way, this is a perfect illustration of one of the things that always make an appearance in the immigration debate: Republican hypocrisy. Most GOP members of Congress hold strong pro-business views, and solicit campaign contributions through members of the business community. In a state such as South Carolina, where illegal immigration has climbed in the last 15 years, it's a safe bet that many businesses, especially those in agriculture, rely on illegal immigrant labor to make a profit. Then they turn around and use that revenue to buy influence from Republican members of Congress who, to please their other constituents, publicly rail against illegal immigration. That way, everybody wins.

Error No. 3: Due to Wilson's outburst, the White House has been bullied into lurching to the right just to quell the criticism over whether illegal immigrants will get health coverage.

Trying to defuse the controversy, the White House overcorrected. White House spokesman Reid Cherlin recently said that the president's plan would bar illegal immigrants from purchasing health coverage through an insurance exchange and require verification of immigration status. Illegal immigrants could still purchase health insurance through the private market. Yet, the White House acknowledges that private plans will probably shrink if a public option is created.

So illegal immigrants could end up with fewer health care options than they have now. And we call this reform?

The most humanitarian thing the administration is prepared to do is to continue requiring hospitals to provide emergency care to illegal immigrants at taxpayer expense, which is the law anyway, and reimburse hospitals for that cost.

That's great. Emergency care is among the most expensive, and it would be so much cheaper to focus on prevention over treatment and pay for doctor visits as opposed to hospital stays. Obama knows this, but he's too terrified of the public backlash to inject common sense into this discussion.

Don't look now, but the president's leadership skills are looking a bit sickly.

Copyright 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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Ruben Navarrette

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