Say It Ain’t So, Joe: Shouting Down Immigrants and Healthcare Reform

By Michelle Chen Sep 10, 2009

Just who was that shrill voice heckling the President from the gallery at tonight’s healthcare reform speech? None other than Joe Wilson, Republican of South Carolina and vaunted protector of American borders and American values. Wilson’s latest contribution to the civic discourse was shouting “You Lie!” in response to Obama’s umpteenth reiteration that nothing in the emerging reform legislation would extend healthcare to undocumented immigrants. Carl Hulse of the New York Times reports that even White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a notorious Washington hardass, seemed taken aback:

“No president ever has been treated like that, ever,” Mr. Emanuel told reporters.

Well, we’ve never had a president quite like this one, have we? Wilson’s sneering outburst, hardly his first, clearly ignores the fact that the Obama administration has bent over backwards to deny that its reform plan would accommodate undocumented immigrants. But what else besides thin air might be informing Wilson’s allegation? Walter Ewing at Immigration Impact reports that the anti-immigrant think tank Center for Immigration Studies just released a report fattening the lie peddled by the far-right–that reform would lead to astronomical healthcare spending on the undocumented. Leaving aside, for now, the moral question of covering undocumented immigrants (for a digression on that, see here), official documents clearly show that mainstream reform proposals would exclude them. According to a July letter issued by the Congressional Budget Office, the main House bill, HR 3200, would end up “leaving about 17 million nonelderly residents uninsured (nearly half of whom would be unauthorized immigrants).” Politically speaking, why would Obama risk adding to the burgeoning deficit by covering these "undesirables?" A 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office also found that under current law, Medicaid eligibility restrictions based on citizenship documentation were already so tight that, in many states, enrollment was apparently dropping, because people who actually were eligible “were denied or… had coverage terminated due to the inability to provide the necessary documentation.” Ewing points out that several states have gone to great lengths to enforce the Medicaid restrictions, spending $8.3 million to yield a whopping $11,048 in “federal savings from undocumented immigrants.” Surely, at a time of fiscal crisis, this is a small price to pay to avoid such an unconscionable waste of taxpayer dollars as healthcare for people without papers. Health coverage for immigrants with green cards, on the other hand, is an actual point of contention in the reform debate. Interestingly, the CIS study doesn’t dwell on this. Perhaps because it’s just so darn easy to throw a hissy fit about illegals and be rewarded with a sound bite on the evening news (even if you have to apologize later). Obama’s audience tonight probably included plenty of undocumented immigrants. What do they think about “the character of our country,” as the President described it–now that they’ve seen that in this country, the mere notion of allowing them to be as healthy as everyone else, is considered a slur? Image: Ben Margot / AP