The Biden administration is proposing a rule that, if finalized, would open eligibility for Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act's health insurance exchanges to recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program.
On Thursday, the White House announced the Department of Health and Human Services is planning to put forward a rule that expands the definition of "lawful presence" to include DACA recipients, also known as "Dreamers." The administration intends to implement the policy change by the end of the month, according to the White House.
"Health care should be a right, not a privilege, and my administration's worked hard to expand health care. And today, more Americans have health insurance than ever," President Joe Biden said in a pre-recorded video announcing the decision. "Today's announcement is about giving DACA recipients the same opportunity."
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra applauded the decision, noting about a third of current DACA recipients do not have health insurance.
Some recipients have had access to coverage through work, military service, and programs some states have expanded to them.
Advocates say undocumented immigrants and DACA recipients deserve to be rewarded for their help keeping the economy afloat during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"These were people who were providing health care, or providing other types of care, helping keep small businesses open and ensuring that people had food to eat. At the same time, many of these same individuals who were part of our frontline workforce during the pandemic, they themselves were left behind unable to access many of the assistance programs that the rest of us were able to access," said Sergio Gonzales, Executive Director of the Immigration Hub. "Not only was this just completely unfair and unjust, but it also makes no sense. When we have healthier people and we have people who are able to access health care that moves the entire country forward. That ensures that we have healthier communities at large."
Paloma Bouhid, a DACA recipient, says she lost health care coverage when she was laid off from her tourism and hospitality job during the pandemic and was "terrified" of contracting COVID. She recently started her own company organizing homes, businesses and other spaces for clients and had to get private insurance for some medical tests she had to undergo.
"It's so expensive and it's such a big part of my financials, being a small business owner, that I'm still very paranoid about getting sick or being in an accident. It's just absolute paranoia," Bouhid said. "This comes as a huge relief to know that if something does happen I am covered and I can take care of myself and prioritize my health and know that's going to be okay.
While immigrant advocates largely praised the president's announcement, some conservatives slammed his plan to expand health care for DACA recipients.
"Rewarding illegal immigration will bring more illegal immigration. This is an insult to American citizenship," Republican Sen. Tom Cotton tweeted.
There are approximately 580,000 current recipients of the program, and nearly 800,000 young migrants have benefited from DACA, according to data collected by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services shows. The program was launched by the Obama-Biden administration in 2012, which allowed some immigrants who were brought to the country as children to legally work and stay in the country for renewable periods of up to two years if they meet several strict requirements. DACA does not provide a pathway to citizenship.
Multiple legal challenges have threatened the fate of DACA since its inception, with a current lawsuit working its way through district court in Texas. In 2021, U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen ruled that the program was unlawful. A federal appeals court later upheld his decision but allowed protections for current recipients to remain in place pending the lower court's review of the Biden administration's efforts to codify the program into administrative law. While recipients are still allowed to apply to renew their status every two years through DACA, new applicants have been barred for nearly two years.