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Obama’s Immigration Plan Could Shield Five Million


WASHINGTON — Up to four million undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least five years can apply for a program that protects them from deportation and allows those with no criminal record to work legally in the country, President Obama is to announce on Thursday, according to people briefed on his plans.

An additional one million people will get protection from deportation through other parts of the president’s plan to overhaul the nation’s immigration enforcement system, including the expansion of an existing program for “Dreamers,” young immigrants who came to the United States as children. There will no longer be a limit on the age of the people who qualify.

But farm workers will not receive specific protection from deportation, nor will the Dreamers’ parents. And none of the five million immigrants over all who will be given new legal protections will get government subsidies for health care under the Affordable Care Act.

These new details about the broad reach of Mr. Obama’s planned executive action on immigration emerged as he prepared to speak to the nation in a prime-time address on Thursday night. On Friday, the president is to travel to Las Vegas to rally public support for his plan in a state where Hispanics are a growing and politically powerful constituency.

Republicans on Capitol Hill sharply rebuked the president for his executive actions even before the speech on Thursday, accusing him of vastly exceeding the authority of his office. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, in an opinion article Tuesday on the Politico website, assailed the president for embracing “the tactics of a monarch.”

At the same time, immigration advocates rallied behind Mr. Obama’s actions, describing them as a much-delayed victory for millions of people.

Administration officials have said the president’s actions were designed to be “legally unassailable,” which activists said led the White House to make some tough choices.

Farm workers, for example, will not be singled out for protections because of concerns that it was difficult to justify legally treating them differently from undocumented workers in other jobs, like hotel clerks, day laborers and construction workers.

The White House decision to deny health benefits also underscores how far the president’s expected actions will fall short of providing the kind of full membership in American society that activists have spent decades fighting for. The immigrants covered by Mr. Obama’s actions are also unlikely to receive public benefits like food stamps, Medicaid coverage or other need-based federal programs offered to citizens and some legal residents.

The health care restriction may be the most immediate concern for many immigrants and for activists who have urged Mr. Obama to act to prevent deportations. Advocates for immigrant rights were infuriated in 2012 when the White House ruled that Dreamers would not get subsidized insurance coverage.

But the restriction reflects the political sensitivities involved when two of the most contentious issues in Washington, health care and immigration, collide. It also suggests that the White House has decided not to risk angering conservative lawmakers who have long opposed providing government health care to illegal immigrants and who fought to deny immigrants coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Some advocates said this week that they saw a paradox in the president’s policy. On one hand, they said, Mr. Obama plans to provide relief to millions of undocumented immigrants so that they can come out of the shadows and be better integrated into American society. On the other hand, they said, the administration is shutting them out of the health care system that would help them become productive members of society.

“We would all benefit if more people had access to health care services,” said Angel Padilla, a health policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center, an advocacy group for low-income immigrants.

Stephen W. Yale-Loehr, who teaches immigration law at Cornell, said he believed the president had the legal authority to decide whether the immigrants included in his executive actions qualified for health benefits.

“Just as the president has broad discretion to decide whether to allow undocumented individuals to get a temporary reprieve from deportation,” Mr. Yale-Loehr said, “he also has broad authority to decide whether to grant them work authorization and health benefits.”

“In this case, it appears he is willing to grant the former,” he added, “but not the latter.”

Senator Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican who has vehemently opposed giving benefits to undocumented immigrants, disagreed with that assessment.

“It is plain that President Obama has no authority to grant lawful status to those declared unlawful by the duly passed laws of the United States,” he said. “Nor does the president have any authority to declare such individuals eligible to receive health benefits that have been restricted to lawful residents.”

The White House decision on health benefits may be intended to undercut one line of attack by Mr. Sessions and other Republicans. In recent days, as it became clear that Mr. Obama was preparing to announce an executive order, conservative commentators and radio hosts suggested that the president wanted to give health coverage to millions of immigrants who would be given legal status.

The question of whether illegal immigrants should have access to health care benefits has long been a central part of the immigration debate. Legislation passed in the Senate in 2013 would also have denied undocumented immigrants access to federal health benefits, including the Affordable Care Act, for as long as 13 years. But in that legislation, immigrants could eventually qualify for full legal status and for federal benefits.

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the secretary of health and human services, was asked about health care coverage in a webcast with Latina bloggers last week.

She confirmed to the bloggers that immigrants who were covered by Mr. Obama’s 2012 executive actions could not receive subsidies from the marketplace. She called that decision “more than a health care issue” and said it had to be resolved in the context of immigration laws.

“I think everyone probably knows that this administration feels incredibly strongly about the fact that we need to fix that,” Ms. Burwell said. “We need to reform the system and make the changes that we need. It will lead to benefits in everything from health care to economics.”

However, she said that federal aid, including health care benefits, could be available to children who are United States citizens but living with parents who are illegal immigrants. Such so-called mixed families “should not be scared,” she said, because they may be eligible for coverage and financial assistance.

Julia Preston contributed reporting.

DMU Timestamp: November 11, 2014 20:35

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