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Editorial: Don’t let health care kill immigration reform

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“What may be the story at the end of this session is that Obamacare killed immigration reform.”

– Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho

It would be a huge missed opportunity if that happens.

The nation has been waiting for decades for comprehensive immigration reform. That means border security, a way for people who don’t want to be citizens to work here legally and a path for several million people living here illegally who want to become American citizens.

Each year that goes by without it makes the problem more difficult to deal with.

Now that a fragile bipartisan alliance in Congress is finally poised to reform the country’s immigration policies, debate over the nation’s other huge challenge, the running fight over Obamacare, is threatening it.

Illegal immigrants do not have government-subsidized medical coverage now. Yes, they can access community health centers. And those who are pregnant, children, seniors or disabled can get emergency Medicaid services. And that won’t change under the proposed immigration reform bill.

Yet some are now arguing that any reform should also extend taxpayer-subsidized health care to those now living here illegally.

That’s a budget-busting deal killer.

It is already doubtful the country will be able to afford Obamacare for all its legal residents. The Congressional Budget Office estimates its tax subsidies will cost around $5,300 per person per year. Medicaid is expected to balloon by 170,000 clients in New Mexico alone and add $6.2 billion to the feds’ 2014-2020 tab here. At least 10 states have already said they will not extend Medicaid to additional low-income legal residents.

Yet Sonal Ambegaokar, health policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, says the Senate proposal barring immigrants in provisional legal status from getting taxpayer-subsidized care for the 10 years of that phase is “sort of an unfulfilled promise from the Affordable Care Act, when undocumented immigrants were excluded.”

To the contrary, one of Obamacare’s selling points by its namesake and supporters was that it would not cover illegal immigrants.

Congress would do well to solve the over-arching problem in its reach. The current proposal tightens border security to stifle future illegal immigration and lays out a 13-year process to citizenship for those who got into the country illegally before 2012. That process includes fines and back taxes, and while it is a high price, it’s one that must be paid for cutting in line in front of others waiting to immigrate legally.

Paying for your own health insurance, or finding a job that provides it, is a reasonable part of that price.

It truly would be sad if those who advocate for immigrants kill this reform opportunity by an overreach that adds Obamacare to the mix.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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