Health-care access to legal immigrant children advances

Politics » Sen. Chris Buttars provides critical vote.
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With a key affirmative vote by Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, legislation that aims to remove a five-year waiting period for legal immigrant children to receive access to low-income health care was sent to the Senate floor.

Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, altered her SB44 to give it a starting date of July 1, 2012, noting this is a tough financial year to extend Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program services to the estimated 800 children who would become eligible. Last year, the federal government removed the five-year waiting period imposed on states, and 28 states have extended the low-income health benefits, Robles said.

Her bill aims to help legal immigrant children, Robles said, noting they have been unfairly criticized by many as "anchor babies," "undocumented" and "illegal."

In siding with Robles and Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, Buttars provided the critical 3-2 vote to allow SB44 time on the floor.

"These kids are kids, and they're playing by the rules as best they can," he reasoned. "So while I'm totally against illegals, these kids aren't illegals."

But while those kids might follow the rules, Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, who opposed the bill, said the five-year wait is there for a reason: Legal immigrants are expected to take care of themselves for that time.

"They need to play by the rules, the rules are set up, and you're asking us to change the rules," Christensen said.

Robles countered the federal government, which sets immigration rules, already changed the requirements. Federal dollars match state contributions to Medicaid and CHIP, four to one. SB44 isn't about immigration, Robles said, but health care policy, and it opens access to preventative care that is more cost-efficient than letting problems grow until they end up in emergency rooms.

SB44 supporter Ernie Gamonal said he was born in the United States to a Peruvian immigrant father and noted the immigrant community is "paying into our tax system, they are paying into Medicare and Medicaid."

But Peter Cannon, who leads a conservative 9-12 group in Davis County, protested the use of taxpayer funds for SB44.

"I will be charitable, as will all of us, I'm sure," Cannon said, "but I don't want government to force us to be charitable."