Nebraska approves prenatal care for illegal immigrants

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R) has worried that the bill will make Nebraska a ‘sanctuary’ for illegal immigrants, since it will become the only state in the Midwest to provide that benefit.

Nati Harnik/AP
Speaker of the Nebraska Legislature Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk reads a newspaper clipping titled 'The Right Thing,' as he sits in the Legislative Chamber in Lincoln, Neb., Wednesday. Nebraska lawmakers on Wednesday overrode Governor Dave Heineman's veto to restore taxpayer-funded prenatal care benefits for illegal immigrants.

The Nebraska Legislature has voted to restore taxpayer funding for prenatal health-care benefits for undocumented immigrants, despite protests by the governor that the lawmakers’ actions would be seen as an endorsement of illegals in his state.

Gov. Dave Heineman (R) had vetoed the bill last week on the grounds it was too expansive in providing publicly funded health care for women. The bill was introduced following a 2010 Medicaid policy change in which prenatal care was no longer covered for low-income, illegal immigrants. Prior to the change, states had the option of providing such coverage under Medicaid, and Nebraska was one of 15 states providing that benefit.

The new legislation seeks to restore the benefit by essentially switching the administration of it to a state program for children.

On Wednesday, the GOP-controlled Legislature overrode Governor Heineman’s veto 30 to 16, with three members present but not voting. The vote did not fall along party lines.

For Heineman, the issue was less about health care and more about the prospect of more illegal immigrants coming to his state. He worried that the bill would make Nebraska a “sanctuary” for undocumented immigrants, since it would become the only state in the Midwest to provide that benefit.

Not only would the increase in population be a strain on the local economy, Heineman said, but it was also unfair to women living below the poverty level in Nebraska who are of legal status seeking the same treatment.

The governor and his supporters have also suggested that as an alternative, agencies in the private sector – such as health centers, hospitals, clinics, and churches – could fund or provide prenatal care for illegal immigrants.

“Providing preferential treatment to illegals while increasing taxes on legal Nebraska citizens is misguided, misplaced and inappropriate,” the governor said in a statement released late Wednesday.

Opposing his veto was a coalition of political figures and advocacy groups that do not usually find themselves on the same side. These include state lawmakers from both parties and organizations as diverse as the Nebraska Right to Life, an antiabortion group; and the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, a group that advocates universal health care and immigration reform.

Julie Schmit-Albin, executive director of Nebraska Right to Life, says she was “proud” that the groups found common ground on the issue, which she views as primarily about women’s health care.

“We’re not going to dictate how a child is treated depending on the circumstance of the child’s life. That’s not what we do,” Ms. Schmit-Albin says.

Schmit-Albin says her organization has also been stressing the “economic sense” of the argument: Using public funds for prenatal care could mean that the children born have fewer problems and thus lower health-care costs.

For some Republicans, the most significant consequence of providing the health-care benefit will be a potential boost in getting out the vote during a presidential year – particularly among Hispanics, a growing segment of the state who currently represent 9 percent of the population.

According to Bob Quasius, president of the Cafe Con Leche Republicans, a group based in Marshall, Minn., that advocates the interests of conservative Hispanics, in general Hispanics share the same values as the Republican Party: They tend to support antiabortion measures and reasoned immigration reform. To Mr. Quasius, these are reasons that reaching out to Hispanics should be high on the Nebraska GOP’s agenda.

The legislation is estimated to cover about 1,162 women each year in Nebraska and cost annually $650,000 in state aid and $1.9 million in federal aid.

“We’re talking about a very small number of women and minimal dollars,” Mr. Quasius says. The rhetoric on the part of opponents of the legislation was “antifamily,” he adds: “All of this is very harmful to the outreach of Latinos.”

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