Trying to quell a conservative uproar over his healthcare agenda, President Obama has proposed barring illegal immigrants from a possible government-arranged health insurance marketplace–even if the immigrants pay with their own money.
The move has surprised some of Obama’s fellow Democrats and infuriated immigrant advocates, who on Tuesday attacked the position as political pandering and bad policy.
The White House revealed its stance Friday, after a renewed debate over illegal immigration that was triggered when Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) heckled Obama on the issue during the president’s televised address to Congress.
Wilson yelled out, “You lie!” when Obama said that illegal immigrants would receive no benefit from his healthcare proposals.
But some on the political left say that the White House–wary of more damaging battles with the right–has given in to Wilson and other conservatives.
Wilson “acted like a buffoon, and everybody criticized him–but then at the end of the day he sort of got his way,” said Brent A. Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
“It rewards bullying in a way that begets more bullying,” said Frank Sharry, who directs the pro-immigrant group America’s Voice and has been advising the White House and congressional Democrats on broader immigration issues.
A White House official said that Obama’s stance barring undocumented immigrants from participating in the insurance marketplace did not reflect a change of heart after Wilson’s outburst–only that the specific question had just come up in recent days.
“The president has been clear since the campaign that he does not intend for health insurance reform to cover undocumented immigrants,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity while discussing official White House policy.
But several White House allies said Tuesday that the policy was a shift designed to position Obama to the right of his critics.
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), an early Obama ally, said Tuesday that members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus were reevaluating their support for the healthcare overhaul.
Wilson’s outburst, Gutierrez said, was “said in a mean, ugly way. And what the president did was create an even meaner, uglier public policy to accompany it.”
Immigrant advocates said Tuesday that the insurance issue could be a political headache for the White House if members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, after hearing from their constituents, felt pressured to vote against the healthcare legislation.
Some said they intended to organize activists in the coming days to push the White House and Democratic leaders to make the bill more favorable to illegal immigrants.
Obama’s policy statement, some activists said, was motivated by politics–an effort to build credibility with conservatives and defuse criticism that the president was soft on illegal immigration.
Experts said Tuesday that the dust-up over immigration amid the broader healthcare fight underscored the political challenges that await the White House later this fall and next year, when Obama has said he hoped to overhaul the immigration system.
Obama has said he supports creating a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. But some say that his new restrictive policy violates the spirit of that old pledge.