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Campaign Advocates Health Coverage for Undocumented Immigrants in California

by George Lauer, California Healthline Features Editor

The California Endowment has launched a statewide campaign to shine a light on the estimated one million Californians who aren’t eligible for coverage under the Affordable Care Act because they don’t have the right paperwork.

Television ads, billboards and other advertising showcase undocumented immigrants in California who are not eligible to buy insurance through the ACA’s health exchanges. The California Endowment has identified a handful of Californians — mostly young professionals and students — to illustrate the situation. The crusade, not tied to any specific legislation or ballot measure nationally or in California, has wide-ranging goals.

“Ultimately, we want to finish the good work that Obamacare has started,” said Daniel Zingale, senior vice president at the California Endowment.

“The Affordable Care Act will take California a long way toward getting everyone covered, but it explicitly leaves out undocumented residents. We hope to prompt a discussion about how to change what is essentially a public health gap,” Zingale said.

“Federal immigration reform could be one path in closing that gap,” Zingale said. “In California, our Legislature and the governor have shown they’re willing to get out ahead of the national curve. We’re trying to get that conversation started.”

Undocumented Attorney’s Saga at Forefront

Sergio Garcia, a 36-year-old attorney from Chico, tops the list of life stories highlighted in the campaign. Garcia, whose application for a green card is still pending after 19 years, is the impetus for a new state law allowing undocumented residents to practice law in California.

“California has a great opportunity to be a beacon of hope for undocumented people in this country,” Garcia said. “If something happens nationally with immigration reform, that would be best, but until then, we’re trying to get things to change in California — including health coverage.”

Garcia’s parents brought him to the U.S. from Mexico when he was an infant, and he lived his first nine years in California before the family went back to Mexico. At age 17, Garcia came back to California, applied for a green card to remain in the U.S., finished high school, attended Chico State University and then Cal Northern School of Law in Chico. He passed the bar exam on his first try, started a business  and practiced law for a few weeks before his license was revoked because of a federal law forbidding state agencies from granting public benefits — including professional licenses — to undocumented residents.

Garcia, who has been fighting the ruling in courts for more than three years, argued the issue in front of the California Supreme Court two months ago.

He also took his case to the Legislature, where Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) agreed to champion his cause. Her bill, AB 1024, granting undocumented residents the right to practice law in California passed in both chambers and was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

California Supreme Court justices asked both sides in the Garcia case to re-file arguments with special attention to the effect of the new state law. The court will reconsider the case Jan. 2, 2014, the day after the new law takes effect, and issue a ruling within 90 days.

“The court hinted the Legislature should be the one dealing with this sort of situation, and now the Legislature — at least the state legislature — has dealt with it,” Garcia said. “But there is still some question about whether the federal law will pre-empt the new state law.”

Garcia appeared at an event last week to highlight the California Endowment’s campaign in Sacramento alongside several other undocumented Californians hoping to be included in the Affordable Care Act. They included:

  • Steve Li, studying to become a surgeon at UC-Davis, is fighting the federal government’s attempt to deport him to Peru where he was born, after his parents were deported to China, where they were born. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has written two bills aimed at keeping Li in the U.S.;
  • Ju Hong, a graduate student at UC-Berkeley;
  • Carol Montes, a student at UC-Davis medical school;
  • Jose Antonio Flores, an aspiring filmmaker in San Francisco; and
  • Kimberlyn Valencia, a mechanical engineering student at UC-Davis.

A similar event highlighting Southern California residents is planned in Los Angeles.

“There is for the first time in my memory a conversation about who these people are and what they represent in our country,” Zingale said.

“No one thinks we’re going to deport these people. They’re contributing more than they’re taking, and it’s time we start talking about how to make sure they have the ability get health coverage,” Zingale said.

Political Climate Ripe for Undocumented Discussion

Zingale, senior adviser to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and principal architect of Schwarzenegger’s attempt to reform the state health system, said the current political climate in California is right for examining health care options for undocumented residents.

“Our Legislature and this governor have been willing to step forward on these issues, and I’m confident we can get a conversation started that will lead to closing this gap in our public health policy,” Zingale said.

Coming on the heels of California’s version of the Dream Act, signed into law two years ago, Brown last month signed into law several bills affecting undocumented Californians, including:  

  • AB 1024, by Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), which grants undocumented residents the right to practice law in California;
  • AB 4, by Assembly member Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), known as the “Trust Act,” which prohibits law enforcement agencies from detaining people for deportation if they are otherwise eligible to be released from custody; and
  • AB 60, by Assembly member Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville), which allows residents — regardless of immigration status — to obtain California driver’s licenses.

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