Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst during the President’s joint Congressional address on Wednesday has exposed—for the entire nation—one of the Republican Party’s favorite political plays: the illegal immigration wedge strategy.

What’s more astounding, however, is that key Democrats, Senators Baucus (D-MO) and Conrad (D-ND) in this case, seem to be going along.  Republicans were scaring up a fake bogeyman – the undocumented immigrant who would benefit from taxpayer funded health insurance – and rather than pushing back with the facts, Baucus and Conrad seem to be taking them seriously.    

John Aravosis of AMERICABlog is reporting today that Senators Baucus and Kent Conrad are looking at adding additional documentation requirements to the Senate bill.  Democrats were right to reject earlier Republican amendments that would have cut out eligible Americans and increased taxpayer costs in order to score political points.  Rather than cave to the man who just insulted the President, they should stay strong in defending their proposal. 

Let’s be clear. The illegal immigration wedge strategy is a tired approach that Republican politicians continue to employ, despite ample evidence that it just doesn’t work.  During the 2008 elections, Republican candidates spent millions of dollars on immigration attack ads and lost.  They also alienated the fastest-grown group of swing voters – Latinos – whose political power is only going to increase in 2010 and beyond.

Next week, anti-immigrant organizations are descending on Washington to push this further.  Their line, echoed by Wilson, Kyl, Boehner, and others, is that the current health care proposals aren’t tough enough in restricting access to undocumented immigrants.  But here are the facts:

  • Undocumented immigrants cannot receive taxpayer-funded assistance for health insurance under the plans on the table. Section 246 of H.R. 3200 states “Nothing in this subtitle shall allow Federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States.”   

  • The federal government already has verification processes in place to ensure that undocumented immigrants don’t access public benefits programs.  This includes the SAVE Program administered by DHS.  If health care reform becomes law, the government will continue to use these systems to verify eligibility for the new programs.  

  • Adding additional verification requirements would be expensive and useless.  When Congress added more citizenship proof requirements on top of the current Medicaid procedures, the results were breathtaking. In just six states, federal and state governments used $16.6 million in taxpayer funds to implement the extra procedures, and turned up only eight undocumented immigrants.  For every $100 in federal tax dollars used to subsidize these requirements, the government got only 14 cents in actual savings.

  • Adding additional verification requirements would cut out eligible Americans.  According to a GAO study of the new Medicaid requirements, half of states reported declines in Medicaid enrollment due to the procedures, with a majority of those rejected appearing to be U.S. citizens who could not meet the documentation requirements.

So why are Republican lawmakers continuing to push an agenda that a) is fiscally irresponsible; b) would cut out eligible citizens; and c) will hurt them with Latino voters and others they need if they want to re-emerge as a viable national party in 2010 and beyond?

All I can figure is that they just can’t help themselves. It’s red meat for the town hall hecklers, and it’s red meat for the restrictionists coming to town next week.  Call it what you want, but one thing is for sure: it’s short-sighted and dangerous.

Joe Wilson and his buddies have been trumping up this fake issue for years, and the Democrats were handed a perfect chance to call them on it.  This time, they squandered it.  Which leads to the next logical question…

Will Joe Wilson get to write the upcoming Immigration reform bill, too?

Frank Sharry is Founder and Executive Director of America’s Voice.
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