Latino Lawmaker Rips Obama for Making It Harder for Illegals to Buy Private Insurance

By Jacqueline Klingebiel

Sep 15, 2009 6:04am

Already under fire from the Right on the issue of illegal immigration, President Obama is now coming under fire from the Left for making it harder for undocumented workers to buy private health insurance.

My colleagues, ABC News' Elizabeth Gorman and Teddy Davis, have more:

President Obama was blasted by a top Latino ally on Monday for modifying his health-care plan in the face of conservative criticism.

The criticism was leveled in Spanish by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois who was the first Latino member of Congress to endorse Barack Obama for president.

Referring to the Obama administration, Gutierrez said: "Those who should be our friends, our allies, are more and more giving Rep. (Joe) Wilson, R-S.C., exactly what he wants to continue with this prejudice against our community."

Gutierrez, who made his remarks in Washington, D.C., while participating in a panel discussion on immigration reform sponsored by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, was incensed by the Obama administration's announcement over the weekend that it was going to bar undocumented workers from participating in the health insurance exchange.

The exchange, as envisioned by Obama, is a marketplace where individuals and small businesses will be able to shop for insurance at competitive prices. As one big group, those in the exchange will have greater leverage to bargain with the insurance companies.

Without access to either the exchange, or employer-provided group coverage, experts think it will be very difficult for anyone to afford insurance. This, in turn, could lead the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants to rely more heavily than ever on expensive emergency room care whose costs are then shifted to the government as well as to individuals who have private insurance.

After lamenting Wilson's outburst on the House floor, Gutierrez ripped the president for giving into the South Carolina congressman.

"What is the administration’s answer?" asked Gutierrez. "To give him exactly what he said from this hatred. Because now, the administration has told us that if we’re going to have reform of our health care system … all those that go to the private sector in order to get their health care, that they will verify them. They will verify Social Security; they will verify their status in the United States of America."

"So, and remember, we’re not talking about government health care, we’re talking about everybody is going to be required to get health care insurance," said Gutierrez. "And so as we go to this big store, right, where everybody is required. And this exchange, the health care exchange, where if you don’t have health care you are required to go purchase it. When you go and attempt to purchase it, what does the administration say? The administration says, 'You will have to prove that you are legally in the United States and have a Social Security number and a right to that.'"

"Some immigrants, and let me say it – hundreds of thousands of them — who have businesses, who are prospering, who are paying taxes— even when they wish to buy because it’s going to be a requirement to buy it, this administration has told them don’t buy. You can’t. You can’t buy."

"I think we need to understand this is not a new debate," he continued. "This is an old debate. … I believe this is what worries a lot of us."

When asked about the criticism from Gutierrez, a White House official told ABC News: “The President has been clear since the campaign that he does not intend to for health insurance reform to cover undocumented immigrants. He does believe, however, that Latinos are among those with the most to gain from health insurance reform that provides more stability to those who have health insurance, access to quality coverage for those who don’t, and lowers costs for everyone. We look forward to working with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to make that vision a reality.”

Asked on Monday if the political will exists to pass comprehensive immigration reform, Gutierrez said that the Congressional Hispanic Caucus could learn how to leverage its power by studying the Blue Dogs, a group of conservative Democrats who won concessions earlier this year on the overall price tag of health-care reform.

"One of the things that I did notice was that there was a group of Blue Dogs," said Gutierrez. "And they spoke to health care reform. And they said: 'we’re not going to vote.' Did you notice that?."

"I think that the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, with their friends and their allies, have to think at a strategic point," Gutierrez continued. "At which point do we say: 'I'm not going to cooperate any more'?"

"There won't be true reform in this country until the most vulnerable among us have their rights respected here," he added.

Gutierrez's remarks, which were made in Spanish, were translated by ABC News. The accuracy of the translation was verified by an aide to Gutierrez.

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