Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants could receive health care coverage from their employers under the bills winding their way through Congress, despite President Obama’s explicit pledge that illegal immigrants would not benefit.
The House bill mandates, and the Senate bill strongly encourages, businesses to extend health care coverage to all employees. But the bills do not have exemptions to screen out illegal immigrants, who usually obtain jobs by using false identities and are indistinguishable from legal workers.
A rough estimate by the Center for Immigration Studies suggests that the practical effect of the mandates would be that about 1 million illegal immigrants could obtain health insurance coverage through their employers.
Democrats who wrote the House bill said that employer coverage for illegal immigrants is not intentional, but rather the outcome of people breaking the law.
“It’s possible an employee could deceive an employer with a fraudulent document, just as under current law, to gain employment, just as it’s possible for all sorts of criminal activity to occur, and why we have law enforcement,” said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, who wrote the final House bill.
Republicans said that loopholes in the bill could allow coverage to just about any illegal immigrant who wants to cheat the system.
“This is a complete cover-all-the-gaps federal health insurance for illegals, whether it be under Medicaid, the refundable tax credit or whether it be under their employers who would not be able to verify their employers unless we fix E-Verify,” said Rep. Steve King of Iowa, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee.
How to deal with immigrants, both legal and illegal, remains one of the thorniest issues in the health care debate. In his address to a joint session of Congress in September, Mr. Obama specifically challenged Republicans who said his plans would extend coverage to illegal immigrants.
“This, too, is false — the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally,” Mr. Obama said.
That statement elicited an outburst of “You lie” from Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican.
Most of the focus has been on whether the bills in the House and Senate go far enough to screen out illegal immigrants applying for public benefits. The Senate bill is generally considered to have stronger provisions than the House version to exclude participation by illegal immigrants.
The employer mandate could play a major role in coverage for illegal immigrants, but the effect has not been widely understood.
Steven A. Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, said about 6.5 million illegal immigrants work in the United States, though nearly half do so off the books and wouldn’t be counted for purposes of employer-sponsored health insurance.