Saturday, September 29, 2007

NILC Urges Commitment to Immigrant Children

In a year hailed as the year of children's health, Congress and Democratic leadership squandered this week a clear opportunity to honor their commitment to immigrants and children's health by stripping a provision that would have allowed federal health coverage to low-income, lawfully residing immigrant children and pregnant women. They did so even though the stripped provision represents sound health policy and enjoys long-standing, nationwide, bipartisan support. Immigrant children fell victim to politics once again. The National Immigration Law Center (NILC), which works to promote and advance the rights and opportunities of low-income immigrants and their family members, is bitterly disappointed that Congress has failed yet again to address the health needs of immigrant children and pregnant women. We urge Congress to do better.


This week, Congress passed the Children's Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2007 (H.R. 976), reauthorizing the federal State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), without removing discriminatory barriers that prohibit federal coverage of lawfully residing immigrant children and pregnant women. Specifically, Congress rejected the Legal Immigrant Children's Health Improvement Act provision (ICHIA, S. 764, H.R. 1308), which would grant states the flexibility to provide federally funded health coverage to low-income, lawfully residing immigrant children and pregnant women. Health policy experts and about a third of the states, through investment of their own funds, recognize that providing preventive coverage to immigrant children and pregnant women is cost-effective, decreases the number of uninsured children, and reduces health disparities. Congress heard from Governors of both parties, health providers, the faith community, and organizations from all fifty states that covering immigrant children should be a priority in the 2007 SCHIP reauthorization debate.

In response, the House of Representatives included ICHIA in the SCHIP bill that it passed earlier this year.[1] The Senate, however, refused to do so despite bipartisan support by Senate Finance Committee members and inclusion of ICHIA in initial proposals crafted by Senators of both parties.[2] The Senate leadership rebuffed efforts to introduce an amendment to add ICHIA on the Senate floor, suggesting that the omission could be addressed in a conference committee that never materialized. Other attempts during the closed-door negotiations and in the House Rules committee to add ICHIA to the compromise bill were also blocked by leadership. The continual rejection of ICHIA was not the result of any sound policy considerations, but the casualty of failed Congressional leadership, which allowed a few voices to dictate how best to beat the President in a game of chicken.

In a tune familiar to immigrants, many proclaim the compromise SCHIP bill as the best legislation that can be negotiated under the current circumstances. We recognize that the compromise SCHIP bill protects coverage for millions of children and includes some improvements that will benefit eligible immigrant children and pregnant women. Nevertheless, there was an opportunity to do better. Instead, in a race to the bottom, Congress surrendered to anti-immigrant forces by omitting ICHIA, adding a gratuitous provision trumpeting that fact that nothing in the bill helps undocumented immigrants, and extending to SCHIP the same disastrous 2005 Medicaid citizenship documentation requirement that has wasted millions of taxpayers' dollars and prevented tens of thousands of U.S. citizens from obtaining health care, all of which undermine the goal of insuring more children. Yet despite yielding to anti-immigrant pressures, Congress still has to defend the compromise bill against inaccurate, unimaginative, predictable, anti-immigrant attacks.

The Democratic leadership now asks us to support the compromise bill while acknowledging the injustice of failing, once again, to cover immigrant children and pregnant women - immigrants from working families who pay taxes and "play by the rules." They promise to address immigrant children's health in some unspecified, future legislation rather than in the modest children's health bill now before them. This is an audacious request given that the promise echoes several made before and not kept. It is not the first time that ICHIA has been stripped out of legislation behind closed doors after winning heated committee and floor debates.[3] Despite ICHIA's hard fought victories, long-standing bipartisan support, and the persistent efforts among health and immigrant advocates over many sessions, Congress has failed to honor its commitment to immigrants and stand up to the anti-immigrant minority.

The compromise SCHIP bill is expected to be vetoed by the President, leaving a small window of opportunity for Congress to revisit its SCHIP priorities. The point of contention in the SCHIP debate has little to do with lawfully residing immigrant children and pregnant women, yet Congress to date has refused to make the most modest effort to ensure that these immigrants have access to care. House and Senate leadership on both sides of the aisle have a moral obligation to correct this indefensible omission, redress the discriminatory barriers, stand up to anti-immigrant attacks, and finally honor its commitment. Immigrant children and their families, whose health, well-being and opportunity to succeed in life have long been jeopardized in the name of politics, can no longer afford to wait.
Sonal Ambegaokar, Health Policy Attorney | | 213.674.2814
Dinah Wiley, Public Policy Attorney | | 202.216.0216 x 4

[1] The Children's Health and Medicare Protection (CHAMP) Act of 2007 (H.R. 3162)

[2] Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and John Rockefeller (D-WV) included ICHIA in their SCHIP proposal and Senator Jeff Bingaman (R-NM) was talked out of pursuing an amendment he initially offered in committee.

[3] Most recently, immigrants were told to wait until the 2007 SCHIP reauthorization for the passage of ICHIA after it was stripped from the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 during the last hours of conference negotiations. Prior to that, despite winning heated committee and floor debates, ICHIA was cut from a 2000 Medicare provider bill as well as a 2002 Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) reauthorization bill. In fact, Democratic leadership has long vowed to redress the damage to which they contributed in 1996 by placing the arbitrary restrictions on legal immigrants.


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