From the Progress Report
Joe Wilson's Red Herring - Rep. Joe Wilson's (R-SC) outburst during President Obama'sspeech before a joint session of Congress last week signaled the resurgence of the Republican Party's preferred tactic du jour: the immigration wedge strategy. Since then, members of the GOP have escalated efforts to "drum up a false debate" over health care and immigration, despite the fact that both the House and Senate bills explicitly exclude undocumented immigrants from receiving health benefits. Wilson half-heartedly apologized for screaming "You lie!" when the President said his health care plan would not cover undocumented immigrants, but he's still berating "liberals who want to give health care to illegals" and accusing Obama of "misstating the facts." Meanwhile, his GOP colleagues have focused less on denouncing his actions and more on defending his words. Worse yet, key Democrats have indicatedthat they are willing to bend over backwards to appease the Joe-Wilson argument byadding flawed and costly eligibility verification requirements to the House and Senate bills.
IMMIGRATION WEDGE POLITICS: This is certainly not the first time Republicans have used the immigration issue as a wedge to kill a policy and attack a politician they don't like, all while garnering extra support from the far right-wing of their base. Earlier this year, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) and Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) opposed letting more legal immigrant children receive health care benefits under the State Children's Health Insurance Program, arguing that it would somehow "enable illegal aliens to fraudulently enroll in Medicaid and SCHIP." One month later, anti-immigrant groups and right-wing lawmakers claimed that the economic stimulus package could grant undocumented immigrants tax credits. Several Republicans began arguing for the inclusion of an E-Verify mandate that would have forced employers receiving stimulus money to use a controversial and error-ridden web-based system to verify the immigration status of their employees. In July, Republican senators swamped the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill with a series of immigration enforcement-only amendments that re-introduced no-match letters, expanded E-Verify, and expedited the construction of 700 miles of border fencing. Leading up to the confirmation hearings of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, anti-immigrant groups and right-wing lawmakers needlessly fretted over her "interventionist approach to immigration" and accused Sotomayor of affiliating herself with a "pro-illegal immigration" "Latino KKK" group and called her "racist" because she's a member of the nation's largest mainstream Latino civil rights group.
GOP ECHO CHAMBER: Wilson's "You lie!" spasm is essentially the GOP's motto. Most right wingers and health care reform haters have conceded that there's language in both health care bills that explicitly excludes undocumented immigrants, but they cling to the absence of an immigration-status verification mechanism as proof that Obama is either a liar or a misinformed fool. Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) and Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA) have both suggested that President Obama was either lying or talking about "some other bill." This weekend, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) proclaimed that "the fact is, Joe Wilson was telling the truth";Rep. Steve King (R-IA) started circulating a pro-Wilson letter. Former New York governor George Pataki says Obama's comments raise "questions," and former Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo has also come out of the woodwork to claim, "Joe is right, Obama is a liar." Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said they were offended by Obama's fact-checking, and Boehner, Cantor, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-MN), and many others have defended Wilson's position by slamming Democrats for voting down stringent, GOP verification amendments that would've given private insurance providers unprecedented access to the sensitive income and identity information and blocked several categories of legal immigrants from receiving benefits. Meanwhile, Democrats have "squander[ed] the chance to set the record straight." Sens. Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Max Baucus (D-MT) have expressed willingness to back down and accept enforcement mechanisms, while the White House has indicated that undocumented immigrants should be additionally barred from participating in the exchange and purchasing private insurance at full cost.
SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT: Democrats need to draw a line in the sand between necessary bipartisanship andwasting precious time onnon-issues and "bogus claims." The current debate is dominated by anti-immigrant groups and lawmakers whouse every opportunity to "whip up fear and anger" about immigrants, and hardcore health reform opponents who look for any excuse to slam "Obamacare." The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act prohibited undocumented immigrants from being eligible for most public benefits and codified procedures for verifying eligibility. There's nothing in the health care bills that changes that fact or alters the stringent verification mechanisms already in Medicaid. Tax policy experts have further pointed out that it would be difficult for undocumented immigrants to even apply for subsidies because tax returns are required to determine a person's eligibility and the few undocumented immigrants who do file taxes are almost immediately flagged. Republicans obsessed with health care reform's price tag should take note that enforcement mechanisms are expensive. In the case of Medicaid, six states that spent $16.6 million of federal and state taxpayer funds to implement extra verification procedures caught only eight undocumented immigrants, but blocked thousands of US citizens. Demonizing immigrants also has a high political cost. Latinos, the fastest growing voting bloc, soured on the GOP in 2008 largely in response to right-wing anti-immigrant demagoguery during the 2007 immigration debate. Old habits die hard for the GOP, and ultimately, the debate about covering undocumented immigrants boils down to one thing: Democrats getting pounded for doing something that they're not, despite the fact that it's actually a good idea if you care more about what makes moral, economic, and practical sense, and less about what is politically palatable.