President Obama said this week that his health care plan won't cover illegal immigrants, but argued that's all the more reason to legalize them and ensure they eventually do get coverage.
He also staked out a position that anyone in the country legally should be covered - a major break with the 1996 welfare reform bill, which limited most federal public assistance programs only to citizens and longtime immigrants.
"Even though I do not believe we can extend coverage to those who are here illegally, I also don't simply believe we can simply ignore the fact that our immigration system is broken," Mr. Obama said Wednesday evening in a speech to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. "That's why I strongly support making sure folks who are here legally have access to affordable, quality health insurance under this plan, just like everybody else.
Mr. Obama added, "If anything, this debate underscores the necessity of passing comprehensive immigration reform and resolving the issue of 12 million undocumented people living and working in this country once and for all."
Republicans said that amounts to an amnesty, calling it a backdoor effort to make sure current illegal immigrants get health care.
"It is ironic that the president told the American people that illegal immigrants should not be covered by the health care bill, but now just days later he's talking about letting them in the back door," said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
"If the American people do not want to provide government health care for illegal immigrants, why would they support giving them citizenship, the highest honor America can bestow?" Mr. Smith said.
But immigrant rights groups see the speech as a signal that Mr. Obama is committed to providing health care coverage for anyone in the United States legally, regardless of their citizenship status.
"It's the first time I've certainly heard, publicly, him talking more about legal immigrants," said Eric Rodriguez, vice president for research and advocacy at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR). "I think that was certainly positive progress. We were absolutely concerned about not hearing that."
On Wednesday, hours before Mr. Obama's speech, the NCLR had given the administration a public scolding, demanding that Mr. Obama needed to make "a public commitment ... to ensure that those who are here legally are covered."
A White House spokesman did not respond to questions about where the White House would make the cutoff for eligibility, and Mr. Rodriguez said he's still waiting for an answer from the administration.
"We don't know where they mean to draw the line," he said. "Our biggest concern is that most people don't realize legal immigrants are currently barred from receiving health care benefits for the first five years in the country."
Under the 1996 welfare overhaul, most federal aid programs are restricted to citizens and legal immigrants who have been in the country for at least five years. Democrats have tried this year to chip away at that rule.
Immigration has dogged Mr. Obama in the health care debate. Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican, shouted, "You lie," when the president, in an address to Congress last week, said his plans wouldn't cover illegal immigrants.
Lawmakers - who got an earful from constituents back home during August - have insisted on extra checks to make sure illegal immigrants do not have access to taxpayer-funded programs.
Senators have worked on language that would prevent illegal immigrants from buying insurance through a proposed insurance exchange envisioned in the health care reform package.
But the NCLR said that could lead to situations where some members of a family would be covered and others, including children of illegal immigrants, wouldn't be.
Mr. Obama said legalizing illegal immigrants is a way to take the sting out of the entire issue.
But Republicans said by pushing to legalize illegal immigrants, Mr. Obama is signaling that those here illegally eventually will get access to taxpayer-funded benefits.
Still, the push to pass a legalization bill is beginning to gain steam, even as advocates fret that the White House is moving too slowly.
On Thursday, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat and an outspoken advocate for legalization, agreed to take leadership in writing a new, more generous bill.
"We simply cannot wait any longer for a bill that keeps our families together, protects our workers and allows a pathway to legalization for those who have earned it," Mr. Gutierrez said. "Saying immigration is a priority for this administration or this Congress is not the same as seeing tangible action, and the longer we wait, the more every single piece of legislation we debate will be obstructed by our failure to pass comprehensive reform."
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.