Robert Ehlert: Idaho lawmakers in thick of immigration battle

Idaho StatesmanJune 9, 2013 

Immigration reform is what's for summer in Congress, and the debate may permeate your existence whether you're in Idaho or any point beyond.

The status and fate of some 11 million undocumented residents - some of whom are your neighbors or people you see or do business with daily - will be on the skyline as the Senate considers a reform package and the House begins to draft bills.

"It's going to be a hard- fought battle over the next three weeks," said Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho. "The American people are not fully engaged in this yet. I think that will happen next."

Across the way, the House of Representatives races to get legislation ready for a vote that might come just before the congressional August recess. By then the Senate might have cleared a package on "comprehensive immigration reform."

A bit of drama came on the House side Wednesday when Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, decided to disengage from an informal eight-member caucus of four Democrats and four Republicans who, in various combinations, have been meeting secretly for four years.

Labrador, who said he had been meeting with the group for six months, is out because he disagreed about who should be responsible for paying the health care costs of those here illegally as they progress on a path to citizenship that for some will take 10 to 15 years. Labrador believes the undocumented people should be responsible for their own health care, but Democrats in the group believe that is unrealistic. They concede that, by default, the 11 million would fall under coverage provided by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act during their transitional status.

As generous as we might want to be to immigrants, the country faces its own collective and individual implementation of ACA, which has failed to reduce health care costs so far, although some say it has managed to slow rising costs. Millions of Americans who never paid for their health care before - out of choice - might soon be doing so. To add on the expense of paying for immigrants has not been thought through. Where is the money to come from?

"For three and a half years, we had a deal," said Labrador, adding that the "deal" he and fellow caucus members worked by included a provision that those working on their legal status would provide their own catastrophic health care coverage. If they didn't pay, they could be subject to deportation.

Democrats countered. They said that would put immigrants into an even worse position than they are now - convincing some to avoid health care at all for fear of reprisal. Labrador believes the way around it would be for the Obama administration to allow waivers - which have been granted to corporations such as McDonald's - to those on the path to citizenship so they could purchase health care, something he believes they couldn't do under ACA present rules.

"They took away the entire market," Labrador said.

Beginning this week, Labrador will join House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., another Republican attorney who specializes in immigration, in fashioning legislation that moves through committee.

"That is where the action is going to be," Labrador promised.

Whereas the Senate is looking at a comprehensive piece of legislation that considers many issues - including border security, guest worker programs, visas for high-tech and other professionals, young people brought here by parents and the rest of the 11 million undocumented residents - House Republicans have begun to draft bills by topic, taking one issue at a time.

It would be up to House Speaker John Boehner to connect all the individual bills into one that would be structured more like the Senate bill.

Risch wishes that were the case in the Senate. He thinks that there is broad bipartisan agreement on a jobs portion dealing with guest workers and that such a measure broken out could pass immediately.

But when it comes to border security and allowing earned income credits to undocumented workers, such topics "represent a heavy lift for Americans. ... Are the people who you are going to give a legal status going to be subject to the same taxes? Will citizens contribute to the earned income credits of those in the new 'legal status,' whatever that is?" he said.

Both Risch and Labrador want to see immigration reform, but they promise to be tough negotiators for their constituencies and to stay true to their principles.

"I really want to see an immigration reform bill passed," Risch said. "But I am not going to vote for a bill simply to do immigration reform."

Labrador believes that Boehner - with whom he has had disagreements in the past - and House leadership will find common ground on immigration reform.

"We're doing really well. I met with Boehner, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy recently," Labrador said. "They are relying on me to get immigration reform passed. ... They know I will stick to my principles and help draft legislation."

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman's editorial page editor. Contact him at 377-6219, or on Twitter @IDS_HelloIdaho.

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