Quick Hit Ashlee Rezin Friday May 31st, 2013, 6:57pm

As U.S. House Works On Immigration Reform Bill, Health Care Remains An Area Of Contention (VIDEO)

U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D, IL-4) said one of the most challenging aspects of comprehensive immigration reform is providing health care to America’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, without spending taxpayer dollars.

“We have to figure out how to keep (undocumented immigrants) healthy, how to make sure they continue to get medical treatment and don’t become a charge [to taxpayers],” he said.

On Friday, Gutiérrez told approximately 300 attendees at the SEIU* International Latino Caucus 2013 convention, “Invisible No More", that a bipartisan group of legislators in the U.S. House, of which he is a member, is “finishing up work” on immigration reform legislation.

The House Gang of Eight plans to reconvene Tuesday. The bill is expected to be unveiled later in June.  

“I am very optimistic,” Gutiérrez said. “But just because eight members of the House of Representatives, four Republicans and four Democrats, get together, doesn’t mean you’re really going to have a bill that’s going to make it through the House.”

Gutiérrez said his chamber, which has a Republican majority, should be able to sign off on the legislation by September. Meanwhile, the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate is expected to take up the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, S 744, by the end of next week.

The Senate bill’s pathway to citizenship provides that after 10 years of status as a “registered provisional immigrant” (RPI), if certain qualifications such as work requirements are met, immigrants can apply for a green card. Then, after an additional three years, immigrants would be able to apply to be a U.S. citizen.

Under the legislation, individuals labeled RPIs are ineligible for taxpayer-funded health care, including subsidies under the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid. But insurance could be purchased at full price from a health insurance exchange.

Undocumented immigrants are currently denied access to federally-subsidized health care. Under the Affordable Care Act, which fully kicks in January 1, 2014, legal permanent residents (individuals with a green card) who have lived here for five years and whose incomes fall between certain federal poverty levels, will be allowed to apply for health care subsidies.

Whether taxpayers would cover healthcare costs for undocumented immigrants who gain a pathway to citizenship is a topic of contention in the U.S. House, according to Gutiérrez.

“We need to craft a bill that speaks to the interest, that is balanced, that is compassionate, that has justice for our immigrants,” said Gutiérrez. “I think we can do it.”

Here’s more from Gutiérrez:

In a press conference last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D, CA-12) told reporters “it is a bottom line ... No subsidies in the Affordable Care Act, no Medicaid."

"It is stated very clearly in the Affordable Care Act, [and] it is our position in the immigration bill: no access to subsidies in the Affordable Care Act. Secondly, no access to Medicaid; no cost to the taxpayer," Pelosi said. "That has always been the Democratic position."

Eliseo Medina, international secretary-treasurer of the SEIU, said lawmakers should figure out how to provide everybody with access to health care, including undocumented immigrants.

“How do you balance public health with the cost factor,” he asked. “At some point, this is going to impact all of us; either in uncompensated care or in sickness that could spread.”

He said undocumented immigrants, who are going through the citizenship process and “most likely pay taxes” should be provided the same access to health care as legal permanent residents and American citizens.

According to the union, Latinos make up 22 percent of SEIU’s nationwide membership. In Chicago, Latinos make up 40 percent of the SEIU Local 1 workforce.

“(Immigration reform) is hugely important for us because we do represent a lot of immigrant workers,” said SEIU Local 1 President Tom Balanoff. “Working people can’t be fighting over crumbs of the pie, they need to come together and understand that if we unite we can have a real piece of the pie.”

Balanoff said SEIU is “putting the thumb down” on Republicans, both on a national and local level, to advocate for common sense immigration reform policies. He said polarization and congressional gridlock is preventing lawmakers from making progress.

“I actually think this is a very conservative value, people get up and go to work every day, contribute to our economy and contribute to our communities. They’re good citizens in every way, except they’re not documented,” he said. “That’s a good conservative value.”

Meanwhile, Graciela Vergara, 32, executive board member of the SEIU Illinois Latino Caucus, has been separated from her husband for nine months while he waits for citizenship proceedings to conclude. She discussed the importance of immigration reform with Progress Illinois:

“I can’t live my life, I can’t plan my life, because my husband’s life is in somebody else’s hands,” she said.

Her husband, Julian, 35, came to American 18 years ago from Mexico as an undocumented immigrant. Now, a married father of two, he has been forced to wait in his native country while his visa application is under review.

According to Graciela, he has no criminal background, pays taxes and, a production manager at a food manufacturing company, has done nothing wrong.

“I don’t know when he’s going to be able to come back,” she said. “What am I supposed to tell my kids?”

* The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this website.

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