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The Myth of Immigrants and Public Services

As you may have read recently, 115,000 people lost access to coverage under the Affordable Care Act because they failed to provide documentation of their legal status.

This topic has been discussed at a national level across major news outlets, but what’s missing from much of the coverage is how this move fits into the bigger picture of immigration reform. What’s influencing the government to take such actions today? Who are the affected parties? What can we expect in the future?

These questions are addressed below, highlighting society’s outlook on immigrant access to public services, methods for determining exchange eligibility and who is considered eligible, anticipated next steps toward achieving immigration reform and more.

Widespread belief that immigrants are draining public services

The myth that undocumented immigrants are coming to the U.S. and draining our public services has been around for decades. The truth is, in accordance with The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, undocumented immigrants and legal non-immigrants (students, temporary workers, etc.) can only access the most essential services, like emergency Medicaid and pregnancy care.

In fact, a good portion of undocumented immigrants actually pay into the system through taxes on their paychecks, but they are unable to collect on public health benefits funded by these taxes due to their status. Even more, those who can collect on public health benefits, belonging to the “qualified” category (legal permanent residents, refugees and certain other humanitarian classifications), often have to wait up to five years before they can take advantage of their status to receive public benefits.

Self-attestation and the exchanges

Immigrants who would qualify for health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act were initially allowed self-attestation of citizenship or immigration status. In other words, they could apply for coverage on the honor system that their status made them eligible.

The government’s decision to request documentation of each of the 310,000 immigrants was intended to ensure that no one takes advantage of the honor system to collect public benefits that they’re not qualified to receive.

This goal was met, but it unfortunately also bars some who would qualify, but don’t have the documentation to prove it.

Mounting political pressures on the administration to take action

So why is the administration cracking down on these benefits today? Despite the fact that this administration has deported record numbers of undocumented immigrants, there is still a pervasive idea among its opposition that the Obama administration is soft on illegal immigration. The media attention around the current surge of families and children attempting to enter the U.S. through the southern border is only fueling that rhetoric.

The Obama administration has indicated that it still hopes to pass some kind of immigration reform. To accomplish this, it has to appease the opposition by showing that it can be tough on the undocumented population.

Looking ahead

If this trend continues, we can expect to see more high-profile crackdowns on undocumented immigrants. Criminal prosecutions for immigration violations are already on the rise, having jumped 76 percent during this administration, and extensions of time for state issued IDs to comply with the REAL ID Act of 2005 are starting to run out, leaving more undocumented immigrants unable to get a driver’s license. It would not be surprising to see more mandated use of the E-Verify system for employers or additional scrutiny of identification for air travel within the U.S.

Whether the administration is trying to show its tough side, or just trying to illustrate how broken the immigration system is, one thing is clear: Immigration reform is still a big issue that is not going anywhere.

This article was originally published in The Oregonian.

Categories: Immigration Reform
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