WASHINGTON -- The White House has ruled that young immigrants allowed to stay in the United States as part of a new federal policy will not be eligible for health insurance coverage under President Barack Obama's health-care overhaul.
The decision, disclosed last month to little notice, has infuriated many advocates for Latinos and immigrants, who say the restrictions are at odds with Obama's recent praise of the young immigrants.
In June, Obama announced that hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, attended school here and met other requirements would be allowed to remain in the country without fear of deportation.
Immigrants granted such relief ordinarily would meet the definition of "lawfully present" residents, making them eligible for government subsidies to buy private insurance, a central part of the new health care law. But the administration issued a rule in late August that specifically excluded the young immigrants from that definition.
At the same time, in a letter to state health officials, the administration said young immigrants granted a reprieve from deportation "shall not be eligible" for Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program. Administration officials said they viewed the immigration initiative and health coverage as separate matters.
Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, said in the Federal Register that the reasons offered for the immigration initiative "do not pertain to eligibility for Medicaid," the children's health program or federal subsidies for buying private health insurance.
White House spokesman Nick Papas said the deferred-deportation policy "was never intended" to confer eligibility for federal health benefits.
The White House describes that policy as "an exercise of prosecutorial discretion," allowing law enforcement officers to focus on immigrants who pose a threat to national security or public safety.
Administration officials declined to elaborate as to why beneficiaries of the new immigration policy were ineligible for coverage under the new health law.
The move might help Obama avoid a heated political debate over whether the health law is benefiting undocumented immigrants. The possibility of such benefits has drawn criticism from many Republicans, including Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who shouted, "You lie!" as Obama addressed the issue before a joint session of Congress in 2009.
The restrictions on health coverage also may save money by limiting the number of people who receive health insurance wholly or partly from the federal government. Federal subsidies for insurance under the new health care law are expected to average $5,300 a year for each person subsidized in 2014, and the cost is expected to rise to $7,500 a person in 2022, the Congressional Budget Office says.
Several immigration lawyers and health policy experts have criticized the restrictions, saying they will make it harder to achieve the goals of the health law and the immigration initiative, which Democrats consider two of Obama's most significant achievements.
Jennifer M. Ng'andu, a health policy specialist at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic rights group, said, "We do not understand why the administration decided to do this. It's providing immigration relief to children and young adults so they can be fully integrated into society. At the same time, it's shutting them out of the health care system so they cannot become productive members of society."
Under the new health law, insurance subsidies are available not only to citizens but to low-income immigrants "lawfully present" in the U.S. That group will still include green-card holders and people granted asylum.