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Democrats unveil bill to expand immigrant health care access

More than 80 lawmakers have signed on to the bill

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a primary sponsor of the bill, said health care must be guaranteed as a right regardless of immigration status.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a primary sponsor of the bill, said health care must be guaranteed as a right regardless of immigration status. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A group of Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday are introducing legislation that would make health care coverage more accessible to immigrants, citing the ongoing pandemic and its impact on immigrant frontline workers.

The bill would lift a current five-year waiting period legal immigrants must undergo before enrolling in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. It also would expand access to various types of health coverage for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The measure also would remove restrictions to prevent undocumented immigrants from purchasing health insurance on the Affordable Care Act marketplace.

“We must finally guarantee health care to everyone as a human right — regardless of immigration status, income, employment, or anything else,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a primary sponsor of the bill, said in a statement.

[Immigration emerges as policy response to slowed US growth]

More than 5 million undocumented immigrants hold frontline jobs in essential industries, according to estimates by FWD.us, an immigration advocacy group. Immigrant populations are also less likely to have health insurance, putting them at higher risk of health problems. They generally are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, in part because a larger share of them have frontline jobs compared to U.S.-born workers, FWD.us said in a December report.

Jayapal and other progressive lawmakers are pushing Congress to pass legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented essential workers, with some signaling they will attempt to do so through a future reconciliation bill.

Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel and has indicated support for the reconciliation route, is holding a hearing on immigrant essential workers on Wednesday afternoon.

The health care legislation is backed by more than 80 lawmakers, including another primary sponsor, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.

“The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the urgency of addressing these health coverage gaps as immigrant communities face heightened risks for the disease,” Booker said in a statement.

The bill does not have any Republican support, and would likely face steep odds in the narrowly divided Senate. Its proponents say they’re open to including it in a broader legislative package to improve its chances of passage.

“We’re open to any vehicle that removes barriers to health care for immigrants and expands access to care,” said Chris Evans, a spokesperson in Jayapal’s office.

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