Health Care Overhaul Has Tough Implications For Immigrants

The Senate Finance Committee spent most of Tuesday negotiating terms of a health care measure crafted by Montana Sen. Max Baucus. One issue of note in the bill is the tough stance it takes on not extending health care coverage to undocumented immigrants and very strict verification measures for legal immigrants. Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, talks about the bill.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, President Obama is expected to visit New Orleans tomorrow to check on the pace of recovery efforts there. We'll find out how the schools are doing. A conversation with Paul Vallas, superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery District, is in just a few minutes.

But first, a newsmaker interview. After weeks of dramatic negotiations, yesterday the Senate Finance Committee approved a health care overhaul plan crafted by Chairman Max Baucus. A lot of attention has been focused on the partisan politics around the bill, but one feature that did not get much attention yesterday is the hard line stance on coverage for undocumented immigrants and tough verification measures for legal ones.

Under the measure, illegal immigrants would be barred from buying coverage through any government-sponsored exchanges even if they can pay. Joining us now to discuss this and other pressing issues affecting Latinos is Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza. It's a civil rights group focused on the issues of particular concern to Latinos. Welcome to the program or welcome back I should say.

Ms. JANET MURGUIA (President and CEO, National Council of La Raza): Thank you, Michel. It's a pleasure to be with you.

MARTIN: Janet, how do you think that health care and immigration, especially illegal immigration, got so intertwined in this debate? I'm sure many people will remember the incident during the president's address to Congress where a South Carolina congressman yelled at the president. The subject was health care for illegal immigrants. So, how do you think the two got so caught up together?

Ms. MURGUIA: Immigration issues, until we really find a solution to immigration reform, they're going to continue to, I think, be a big and significant factor that will create barriers to broader reform. Because I think you'll see it's not just on health reform, but most on any major reform, there will be a stack of amendments that will be anti-immigration amendments, and they will easily confuse the issues around the broader reforms. So, we see it as a real barrier to achieving much of the president's agenda and that's why we believe strongly that comprehensive immigration reform ought to be a priority.

MARTIN: Well, I want to talk more about that in a minute and about the timing of immigration reform and when you think that's going to happen? But I still want to sort of press the question is why do you think people are so concerned about this.

Ms. MURGUIA: Yeah. Well, I think one reason that there has been efforts to draw attention to undocumented immigrants as part of this debate is that some I think are creating it as a wedge issue to shut down the whole reform effort. And what our concern is that is an effort to block undocumented immigrants from the system. What we're actually seeing is that those who are lawfully present, legal resident immigrants and citizens are actually going to be denied access in coverage. And that's really what's been our focus.

No one's been advocating for those who are not lawfully present to have access to this broader reform, but you can't make a case because it would be cost effective and it would allow for better health outcomes, but no one is really arguing that fact right now.

What we are arguing for is a system that would allow access for lawfully present legal resident aliens and for citizens. And right now, we're seeing that those individuals are vulnerable under the current proposals.

MARTIN: Can your organization support a bill that does not include undocumented immigrants? You are willing to support legislation even if undocumented immigrants are not covered, even if you feel you could make defensible case, why they should be, you're not insisting on that.

Ms. MURGUIA: Absolutely not. We are insisting only that those who are lawfully present and citizens have access to this care. We're worried that there are those who are calling for some of these verification schemes that again are making them so stringent and so onerous that it is prohibiting lawfully residents and legal resident aliens and citizens from having access to this system.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Janet Murguia. She is the president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza. It's a civil rights group that takes on issues of particular concern to the Latino community. And, you know, to that point, the National Council of La Raza in coalition with other civil rights groups including the NAACP has been supporting a bilingual ad campaign addressing health care. So, I just want to play a short clip of one of the ads. Here it is.

(Soundbite of ad campaign)

Unidentified Man: The day I was born they tried to reform health care, and now I'm 65 years old and it still hasn't happened. But now, we can make this real. I'm not going to let special interests and politicians throw 46 million of us under the bus.

MARTIN: Why is this a civil rights issue in your view?

Ms. MURGUIA: Well, let's face it. When we are talking about the ability for communities to advance and to move our country forward, you know, health care is an essential component. I mean, you want to talk about economic security, the future of education. If our communities don't have access to health care, they really can't move forward and it will, I think, end up stifling our economy and our country.

So, we believe strongly that health care reform needs to be accessible to everyone and communities of color have disproportionately been affected by negative health outcomes. And we need to make sure that for the sake of the country that we're able to deal with those issues as part of this health care reform.

MARTIN: Do you think that health care is a fundamental human right? Do you think it's a civil right…

Ms. MURGUIA: I…

MARTIN: …or should be?

Ms. MURGUIA: I think it should be a right in this country and, you know, I think we have to set certain parameters and make them reasonable. But I do think that health care ought to be a right in this country. It's the 21st century. We see so many countries across the globe that are able to offer their citizenry access to health care. I think the United States ought to aspire to have that same standard and, of course, to have the quality of care that goes with it.

MARTIN: But why do you think this country does not? Why do you think there does seem to be a difference of opinion about how extensive access to health care should be?

Ms. MURGUIA: Well, I think the incentives have been misplaced in the current system. And it's hard to change those incentives after they have been in place for so long. There's no accountability built into the system currently as to health outcomes. And without those incentives in place, I think we're still going to continue to see that the system is not going to serve the best interests of those who need the care. And the type of care that they need is not going to necessarily be offered.

MARTIN: Well, just looking back to where we started our conversation about how this question of health care gets tied into immigration, there are those who have criticized the president for what they view as slowness on taking up immigration reform. There are some who think he should have taken up immigration first because it would have cleared…

Ms. MURGUIA: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …the decks. I don't know whether you think that that was politically feasible or not. But when do you think the president is going to undertake the issue of immigration reform?

Ms. MURGUIA: Well, I know that the president promised to take on immigration reform in his first year. Obviously, there's been a lot of challenges to this president, but we fully want to hold him accountable to making good on that promise early in his administration still. And I know that the health care and the economy have been big issues for him to take on, but we do see immigration reform as key to any of these other larger reforms of being addressed.

And, in fact, there are several reports when it comes to the economy as to why addressing immigration reform would actually help level the playing field for a lot of the entire workforce.

MARTIN: How long are you willing to wait?

Ms. MURGUIA: Obviously, everyone has been asked to be patient. The problem here is that I don't think many in the Hispanic community or certainly in the communities that are most affected by this are going to be able to have a lot more patience on this. I think they feel that there is a lot on the table right now, but the president has argued that he can walk and chew gum at the same time. And we want to see him be able to take this issue on with the other issues that he is fighting for right now.

MARTIN: I'm not sure how many Americans want to see their president chewing gum but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: …even if he's walking. But one change this administration has made immediately are changes in how undocumented immigrants will be detained. For example, there is this infamous detention facility which housed children and their parents together, it's been announced that only adult women will be held there, that children will not be held there anymore. Also, federal officials are unlikely to renew the authority for local police departments to enforce immigration law. What is your take on these kinds of changes? Is this a good down payment on the changes that you want to see, not enough, what's your view?

Ms. MURGUIA: Well, I do believe that detention policy changes are a good start, access to health care and access to legal representation for detainees in the system is an important piece of this. However, I think it's equally critical that they have to acknowledge that among the undocumented population, there's not a one size fits all type of setting and not all need to be detained in the same facility.

So, when you have the majority that are nonviolent, non-criminal offenders, I think the DHS has to consider reasonable alternatives to detention. So, I think these efforts do make sense but they alone will not, I don't think, satisfy many who understand that the broader comprehensive reforms must be part of this.

MARTIN: And, finally, you talked of groups, like yours, intending to hold the president's feet to the fire, as it were, and hold him accountable for promises made during the campaign. Last month, there was another group that met in Washington at the beginning of Congress's return. They also say that they're holding the president's feet to the fire. This is a conservative talk show host calling them, so I think it would be reasonable to call them restrictive on immigration or taking a hard line on immigration.

One of the hosts that we had on our program, a man named Roger Hedgecock said that he believes that your organization La Raza is a racist organization, owing in part to your name. So, for the sake of clarity, I would like to just ask about the name. Why is your group called the National Council of La Raza?

Ms. MURGUIA: Sure. There's a lot of history behind our name. And, in fact, La Raza means community and people. It has a broader meaning than the race. It's ironic that some would actually claim that we were a racist organization when, in fact, not only does the word and the term in Spanish translate in English into just the opposite. But we have a record of 41 years now of service as an American institution, civil rights and advocacy organization.

My predecessor marched with Dr. King and we have a broad record of contribution to the area of defending civil rights and advocating for civil rights in this country. So, I know that some of our detractors would like to use the literal translation of our name against us, but the reality is that our history and our actions and the name itself actually reflect something much different.

MARTIN: Janet Murguia is the president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza and she joined from her offices here in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. MURGUIA: Michel, thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Just ahead, we'll hear about a dramatic makeover for New Orleans schools.

Mr. PAUL VALLAS (Superintendent, Recovery School District of Louisiana): About 60 percent of our children attend charter schools. And within the next two to three years, about 80 percent of the district will be charter.

MARTIN: We talk to school superintendent Paul Vallas next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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