When the Affordable Care Act was being written and debated, President Obama took care to emphasize that no illegal immigrants would be eligible for its benefits. Obama and the Democrats who passed the bill were sensitive to public concerns that those who entered the United States illegally should not receive assistance intended for those here legally.
Indeed, an Obama promise along those lines played a role in one of the most notorious incidents of the president's time in office.
"There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants," Obama said in a Sept. 9, 2009 healthcare address to a joint session of Congress. "This, too, is false. The reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally."
At that moment, Republican Rep. Joe Wilson yelled out, "You lie!" leaving the president and lawmakers stunned.
Wilson's action was inexcusable, but the suspicions behind it were entirely understandable. Republicans have always suspected the administration wanted to extend not only Obamacare but a whole range of federal benefits to illegal immigrants. And now, the president's unilateral executive action on immigration seems to be confirming some of those fears.
On November 11, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell participated in an online chat with a group of Latino bloggers. Burwell was asked a two-part question. Would the young immigrants known as Dreamers be eligible for Obamacare subsidies, and can so-called mixed families -- for example, a family with illegal parents and legal children -- receive benefits?
Dreamers are not eligible, Burwell said. But she left no doubt that she -- along with officials at the highest levels of the Obama administration -- wants that to change. "I think that everyone probably knows that this administration feels incredibly strongly about the fact we need to fix that," Burwell explained. "We need to reform the system and make the changes that we need that will lead to benefits in everything from healthcare to economics to so many things -- a very important step that we need to take as a nation."
Burwell went on to tell the bloggers that families with illegal members are welcome to receive benefits. "Mixed families should come, they should seek and try, go on the site, they'll find out they can get financial assistance," Burwell said. "They may be eligible for different programs for their children or themselves."
Finally, Burwell stressed that no one in the government will ask applicants if they are here legally or not. "Everyone should come on, and folks should not be scared," Burwell said. "No questions will be asked, and it is not about an immigration issue."
Coming from the cabinet officer in charge of administering the Affordable Care Act, Burwell's words left some Republicans convinced that it's only a matter of time before the White House breaks Obama's promise.
"It's reasonable to assume that the administration would have no compunction about issuing some sort of regulatory guidance to HHS to make (immigrants affected by Obama's action) eligible for subsidies," says one well-connected GOP Hill aide. "The administration has sufficiently re-interpreted Obamacare and re-interpreted the immigration laws that it would not be at all surprising if they follow through on what Burwell said."
Republican concerns have been intensified by Obama's slippery language about other federal benefits. In announcing executive action, for example, the president said to those affected that if, among other requirements, "you're willing to pay your fair share of taxes," then "you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law."
The phrase "pay your fair share of taxes" suggests to most ears that Obama meant immigrants involved would pay their fair share of taxes. But in fact Obama's action will make many immigrants eligible to be paid by the government, and not the other way around; many will now be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Additional Child Tax Credit, which could mean they receive thousands of taxpayer dollars each year.
In addition, Obama's use of the phrase "get right with the law" is itself a bit misleading; a reasonable listener might assume that Obama was conferring legal status on those involved. But the Justice Department issued an opinion that his programs "would not 'legalize' any aliens who are unlawfully present in the United States." So the illegal immigrants involved are still illegal immigrants, which leads to the question: If Obama is making millions of still-illegal immigrants newly eligible for certain federal benefits, why would anyone believe he will stop there?
It's not clear exactly how far-reaching the effects of Obama's immigration edict will be. But there's no doubt it has increased the already high level of mistrust between the president and Republicans on Capitol Hill.