Examining Health Care And Illegal Immigrants Claim Perhaps the hottest button touched in the president's speech Wednesday was the reference to health coverage for illegal immigrants. The president says his plan won't cover illegal immigrants; Republicans insist it will.
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Examining Health Care And Illegal Immigrants Claim

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Examining Health Care And Illegal Immigrants Claim

Examining Health Care And Illegal Immigrants Claim

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

One extraordinary moment in the president's speech last night was the shouted interruption by Congressman Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican yelled out as Mr. Obama was defending his plan against what he called bogus claims.

President BARACK OBAMA: There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false. The reforms…

(Soundbite of cheering)

Pres. OBAMA: …the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.

Representative JOE WILSON (Republican, South Carolina): You lie.

BLOCK: Congressman Wilson there saying you lie. He later apologized. He said he let his emotions get the best of him. And today, Mr. Obama accepted that apology saying we all make mistakes.

But as NPR's Scott Horsley reports, Joe Wilson has plenty of defenders who say he's right.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Wilson's shouted attack on the president was a shock to congressional protocol. But it was hardly a surprise for anyone who followed last month's raucous town hall meetings around the country; illegal immigrants were a frequent target. One of the milder episodes came in Maryland, where Senator Ben Cardin was forced to defend the health care plan from angry voters like this man.

Unidentified Man: Why not go into an area that is more effective like closing the border. Let's get the illegal immigrants…

(Soundbite of cheering)

Senator BEN CARDIN (Democrat, Maryland): Illegal aliens will not be in this bill, period. The end.

(Soundbite of crowd)

HORSLEY: Some people in the town hall audience were as skeptical of Cardin as Wilson was of Mr. Obama last night. And those skeptics are not easily quieted. William Gheen heads a political action committee that's opposed to illegal immigration. The people he speaks for are applauding last night's outburst on Capitol Hill.

Mr. WILLIAM GHEEN (President, Americans for Legal Immigration-Political Action Committee): People think Joe Wilson is a hero. And they want to know why about every other member of Congress didn't jump out of their seats and point out that the president was lying.

HORSLEY: In fact, the president's statement is true. The proposed health care overhaul bills explicitly rule out federal help for illegal immigrants. But that's not good enough for critics like Gheen. He complains the bills don't have an adequate enforcement mechanism to keep illegal immigrants from sneaking in.

Mr. GHEEN: We already have rules that say illegal aliens shouldn't qualify to register to vote. They shouldn't qualify for welfare and they shouldn't qualify for Medicaid. Yet illegal immigrants are receiving these benefits across the nation.

HORSLEY: Actually there is not much evidence that illegal immigrants are using Medicaid in a big way. A few years ago, the government tried to weed out undocumented migrants by requiring Medicaid recipients to prove their citizenship. Only a handful of illegal immigrants were discovered. But large numbers of citizens lost Medicaid because they couldn't provide the necessary documents. The requirement was later dropped.

Southern Methodist University Professor Nathan Cortez says there was never any attempt to include illegal immigrants under the health care overhaul umbrella. Cortez, who studies the intersection of health care and immigration, says politicians who support the overhaul knew it was just too risky.

Professor NATHAN CORTEZ (Southern Methodist University): It's incredibly unpopular to extend health care to people who may not be here lawfully. They show up to emergency rooms when they are really sick. They don't often seek preventative care that would keep them out of emergency rooms. So it creates this difficult system.

HORSLEY: Experts say because illegal immigrants are generally young, they account for a tiny fraction of overall health care spending in the U.S. Even so, Cortez says they remain a potent weapon.

Prof. CORTEZ: It's an easy way to generate outrage. And it's an easy way to generate opposition. So, you know, unfortunately, it's kind of the low-hanging fruit that opponents can pick to throw at the bills.

HORSLEY: And if opponents are this riled up about health care bills that specifically exclude illegal immigrants, the president is likely to face even louder opposition when he tries to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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