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Philip Klein: Obamacare reshuffles immigration debate

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Opinion,Philip Klein,Columnists,Politics Digest,Immigration,Obamacare

Next year's implementation of President Obama's health care law will have myriad effects on the nation's economy and health care system. But it also throws a monkey wrench into this year's immigration reform debate.

The interaction between immigration policy and the welfare state has been the subject of a long-running debate among conservatives and libertarians. Immigration restrictionists typically argue that the existence of a generous welfare state changes the dynamic of immigration, because a nation doesn't want individuals to migrate for government benefits rather than to work.

Conservative supporters of the Senate Gang of Eight immigration reform effort have argued that such concerns are unfounded.

Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist (a supporter of the immigration reform push) testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that even after immigrants become citizens, because they "come at the beginning of their working lives ... they will have years to pay taxes and contribute to the economy before being eligible for entitlements."

Though such an argument may have some merit when applied to Social Security and Medicare, it certainly is not the case with Obamacare. The health care law expands the Medicaid program and creates exchanges through which individuals can use government subsidies to purchase insurance coverage. Individuals don't have to wait until age 65 to receive such benefits as long as they have incomes below $46,000 (in 2013 dollars) to qualify for at least some subsidies.

A Congressional Budget Office report estimated that by 2019 there will be nearly 8 million uninsured immigrants who won't qualify for benefits under existing immigration law. Under the Gang of Eight proposal, however, they would eventually be eligible to pursue citizenship, at which point they could qualify for benefits.

Without having a more detailed breakdown of the characteristics of those who may be obtaining citizenship, it's hard to give a precise estimate of how much this could cost. But just to give readers an idea, based on CBO projections, adding 8 million people to Obamacare's exchanges in 2022 would increase the cost of the program by $50 billion that year alone.

Ironically, in another twist caused by the complicated web of regulations in Obamacare, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's attempts to prevent the immigration bill from becoming a de facto expansion of Obamacare could discourage businesses from hiring American citizens.

Under the health care law, as Investor's Business Daily reporter Jed Graham noted, businesses with more than 50 employees who don't offer health insurance (or who offer inadequate coverage) could be subject to fines of up to $3,000 per worker if at least one worker obtains coverage through a government-run exchange.

The Gang of Eight immigration bill offers illegal immigrants the ability to obtain provisional legal status after meeting a number of preconditions. But this group cannot qualify for government benefits such as Obamacare until after they become citizens, a process that cannot begin for at least 10 years.

This means that when the two pieces of legislation are combined, for at least the next decade, employers could avoid Obamacare fines by hiring newly legalized immigrants (who are not yet citizens) instead of U.S. citizens.

Effectively, employers would be subject to a substantial tax on hiring American citizens that they would not be subject to if they were to hire newly legalized immigrants who have not yet obtained citizenship.

When asked about this issue, Rubio spokesman Alex Conant wrote in an email that such a scenario "illustrates both the absurdity of Obamacare, and why we have insisted on a lengthy process to review this legislation before any votes are taken." He added that "Ultimately, we need to repeal Obamacare entirely."

As long as Obamacare remains on the books, however, it's going to cause problems for conservatives pushing for comprehensive immigration reform.

Philip Klein (pklein@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @philipaklein.

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Philip Klein

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