The Supreme Court seems divided over President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), giving a temporary reprieve to young undocumented immigrants, and Congress has made little progress in ending the gridlock over immigration reform.
Despite the standstill in Washington D.C., some states, especially California, are taking a different approach. California just began extending health care benefits to undocumented immigrant children in May, a move that points to the state's evolving attitude toward immigrant integration in marked contrast to the contentious fight over immigration two decades ago.
Under a new law passed in September of 2015 and signed by Governor Jerry Brown, “an individual who is under 19 years of age and who does not have satisfactory immigration status or is unable to establish satisfactory immigration status - shall be eligible for the full scope of Medi-Cal benefits”.
The bill’s primary sponsor is state Senator Ricardo Lara, from the Southeast part of Los Angeles.
Medi-Cal is California’s managed health care plan, which is partially funded by the federal government’s Medicaid program. Federal law generally does not allow eligibility for undocumented immigrants to receive Medicaid coverage, with the exception of emergency care and some qualified non-citizens who entered the country prior to 1996.
Health care benefits to undocumented immigrants continue to be a hotly contested issue across the nation. The Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, does not extend coverage to undocumented immigrants, but does extend coverage to immigrants who are “lawfully present” in the country.
California has been at the forefront of the debate over benefits for undocumented immigrants.
In 1994, California voters approved Proposition 187, named the “Save Our State” initiative. In part, the controversial legislation required health care providers to verify the immigration status of anyone seeking health care services. Implementation of Prop 187 was blocked by a federal judge almost in its entirety.
Former Republican Governor Pete Wilson, the main proponent of Prop 187, who made immigration the centerpiece of his campaign for Governor, appealed the court's decision, but the appeal was withdrawn by Democrat Gray Davis when he became the newly elected Governor, effectively killing the bill. During this time, the legislation mobilized Latinos and others in the state, and it has been widely seen as one of the catalysts of the states' Democratic dominance.
Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor at UC Riverside and an expert on immigration, points to a divergence in approach for California compared to other states since the Prop 187 debate.
With the growth of the state's Latino population, which is now close to 40 percent, opposition to anti-immigrant bills has waned. Republicans now find themselves struggling to capture an audience in California, with SB-04 passing easily through the State House and Senate.
A recent survey sponsored by the California Program on Access to Care (CPAC) from the University of California at Berkeley and conducted by the polling firm Latino Decisions, found that California voters are also supportive of expanding health care coverage to undocumented children, with 62 percent saying they approve of the bill.
Voters were supportive of providing health care benefits to undocumented immigrants who have temporary work permits, as well, with 68 percent saying they approve. However, California voters in the poll showed limitations to their support in further expanding health care, with only 42 percent saying they support expanding access to all undocumented immigrants and 48 percent saying they disapprove.
Despite limitations, California has taken an integrative approach to the immigrant population while reform continues to stall in Congress. California continues to extend benefits to undocumented immigrants, says Ramakrishnan, pointing to driver’s licenses and college financial aid as important policies which allow immigrants to get to work and go to college.
“After more than a decade of policy gridlock on immigration in Washington, DC, California began to embark on a series of pro-integration policies that have accumulated over time, forming what we call the California Package of immigration reform,” says Ramakrishnan.
This approach acknowledges the important role immigrants play in the California economy and provides a patchwork of benefits that allows them to continue their contribution with as little friction as possible. For example, professional licenses and low-cost auto insurance are among the policies which allow immigrants to function in California’s economy.
The Senate bill states that “no child in California should endure suffering and pain due to a lack of access to health care services”, which Ramakrishnan points out should not be seen as a benefit exclusively enjoyed by the Hispanic population.
“Undocumented immigration is not just about Mexican immigrants, or even Latinos. Asian Americans account for about 1 out of every 7 undocumented immigrants in California and national reports show that the Asian share of the unauthorized population has grown rapidly in the last decade,” says Ramakrishnan. “Expanding health care access to children will make an enormous difference for Asian American communities.”
José Huizar, a member of the Los Angeles City Council, praised the expansion of health care resources to undocumented children and encourages going even further and covering adult undocumented immigrants.
While strongly supportive of the Affordable Care Act, Huizar said in a statement to NBC that the ACA “will fall short of its promise if we do not utilize it to cover all segments of our population, including undocumented immigrants and their families”.
José Huizar’s city council district is over 70 percent Hispanic and includes Boyle Heights, a traditional gateway community for immigrants.
“The hardworking immigrant communities that I represent need access to quality preventative healthcare and I support Sen. Lara’s bill. It represents a first step in full access and health coverage for all Californians”, stated Huizar.
But for Huizar and others who support the new law, covering undocumented children is an important start.