s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe

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.

The Pew Research Center estimates up to 1.7 million unauthorized immigrants eventually could seek deferrals of deportation. Those immigrants will continue to be able to receive health insurance from employers, but many are likely to struggle to obtain coverage if they do not have a job that provides it.

In the absence of a significant change in immigration law, young immigrants granted temporary relief from deportation have no clear path to green cards or citizenship.

Republicans in Congress have criticized the deportation deferrals as a form of backdoor amnesty for immigrants who broke the law by entering the U.S. illegally or by overstaying visas. They say Obama does not have the legal authority to do what he did -- a claim also made in a lawsuit by 10 immigration law enforcement officers who are challenging the policy in federal court.

The politics of the issue cut in several directions. The Gallup tracking poll shows Obama with a wide lead over his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, among Latino voters. At the same time, administration officials have tried to avoid alienating swing voters who are concerned about illegal immigration, and they have emphasized steps taken to secure the borders.

n the primary campaign, Romney said he would veto the Dream Act because it could create a magnet for illegal immigration. Ryan M. Williams, a spokesman for Romney, said Obama's deferred-deportation policy had "ruined an effort in Congress to forge a bipartisan long-term solution" for illegal immigrants brought here as children.

Some immigrants and their allies worry that the restrictions on federal health benefits could be used to justify similar actions by state officials. Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, a Republican, has issued an executive order denying driver's licenses and public benefits to young immigrants who are granted relief from deportation.