Immigration reform: A step forward in Senate, a leap back in House?

While Senate negotiators were able to sign off on a proposal for immigration reform, a bipartisan group in the House appears stuck on the issue of health care for newly legalized immigrants.

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
House Judiciary Committee members Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, right, and Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev. talk on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 22, 2013, during the committee's hearing on immigration reform.

If immigration reform took one step forward in the Senate this week, it could take a leap backward in the House if bipartisan negotiators cannot, by their self-imposed Thursday deadline, figure out how newly legalized immigrants can have access to affordable health care under President Obama’s signature legislation.

The group, which has been working for the better part of four years on immigration reform legislation, could fracture without resolving the health-care issue, an outcome widely acknowledged to be a serious but not fatal setback for immigration reform’s prospects in the GOP-lead House.

While Democratic House negotiators in the eight-member group of immigration reformers signed off on a proposal that would have left the potential 11 million newly legalized immigrants to largely fend for themselves on health care, House Democratic leadership is concerned about the lack of specificity in the “agreement in principle” the group reached last week, according to a leadership aide.

The apparent obstacle to immigration reform has emerged amid repeated Republican efforts in the House to repeal Obamacare.

The aide said Democrats were concerned the agreement could be construed to mean that the newly legalized, who while pursuing a decade-long path to citizenship will be ineligible for health insurance subsidies and Medicaid, would be at risk for deportation should they hit medical bills they are unable to repay. Republicans and Democrats largely agree that none of those in the country illegally today should be given access to federal support programs until they have reached permanent legal status.

While saying he was “confident” the group could come to an accord, Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho says he is concerned that newly legalized immigrants would be too poor to pay for health insurance on the health-care exchanges due to be established later this year.

Representative Labrador argues that many of the 11 million people in the country illegally would, without coverage from an employer or through a spouse, be forced to go without insurance because of the high cost of unsubsidized health insurance under the health-care law. In the case of a medical emergency, debts could overwhelm what insurance they have, pushing costs off on to states and localities to pick up the tab – a fiscal burden that’s a no-go for Republicans.

In a talk with reporters Wednesday, Labrador questioned whether those who could not foot the bill for health care should be allowed to remain in the country at all.

“What might be the story at the end of this session is that Obamacare killed immigration reform,” says Labrador. “And it’s because it’s so hard for individuals to purchase their own health insurance.... It could be [Democrats] number one priority, which is Obamacare, could kill what they claim to be their number one priority,” immigration.

Democrats think the matter can still be resolved.

“We’re hoping that we can do something as quickly as possible,” said Xavier Becerra (D) of California, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House and a member of the bipartisan negotiations, on Tuesday. “We’ve been saying that for a little while, but I think that shows how close we think we are.”

The House working group has been a key hope for a bipartisan resolution to the immigration issue in the House of Representatives, a chamber where previous reform efforts have gone to die over Republican opposition.

This time around, the Republicans aren’t banking on a small group of negotiators being able to deliver a solution – and they certainly haven’t put all their hopes behind the small bipartisan group.

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia has been steering a simultaneous process of proposing pieces of immigration legislation – discreet bills on border security, on agricultural and high-skilled workers, and on enforcing immigration laws inside the US – to keep the immigration reform effort alive even if the bipartisan House group founders.

“We don’t like to see that,” says Goodlatte of dissension within the House’s bipartisan group, “but we have so many backup plans that we’re not going to be dependent [on the group.] They know we’re going to move whether they produce something or not and we know that if they produce something, we will benefit from that.”

Even if the group doesn’t come to an accord, Goodlatte says, he’s made it clear to the negotiators he’s interested in hearing the points where they did find agreement in order to inform the overall House immigration push.

The fact that whatever happens in the House will certainly be to the right of the Senate’s proposal was evident on Wednesday, when Goodlatte’s committee held a hearing comparing provisions of the current Senate bill to the widely-derided immigration reform signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.

Goodlatte said he had “serious concerns” that the Senate legislation is mirroring some of the errors of the 1986 bill, including putting too few requirements on the executive branch to carry out the enforcement mechanisms and creating border enforcement that isn’t rigorous enough.

But even amid discord and criticism, there remains a strong push among in the House to come to accord on immigration reform.

The House Democratic aide said the party leaders are keenly aware that only a bipartisan deal can get the support necessary to pass the House and they are loath to arrest its progress.

Republicans, too, are keyed in on compromise.

A final immigration deal is “not going to be the House bill, it’s not going to be the Senate bill, it’s going to be something in between, and that’s how compromise works,” Labrador says.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R) of South Carolina pointed out that Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont pulled his amendment that would have recognized same-sex couples for immigration purposes from the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, bowing to the fact that it would have poisoned the immigration issue for many conservative Republicans.

“If that same attitude prevails in the House, then there’s reason to be optimistic,” Mulvaney said.

Is there reason to be optimistic now?

“I’ll tell you Friday,” Labrador says.

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