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DACA recipients to gain health coverage under new plan from Biden administration

President Biden addressed the crowd at a November 2022 rally in Bowie. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

President Joe Biden announced Thursday that he will direct his administration to allow undocumented people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to enroll in Medicaid or private insurance provided under the Affordable Care Act.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will issue a proposed rule on the policy by the end of the month, according to a fact sheet from the White House.

“Health care should be a right, not a privilege,” Biden said of the policy in a video announcement on Twitter. “Today’s announcement is about giving DACA recipients the same opportunity.”

Specific language for the new policy was not yet available Thursday. But the fact sheet from the White House says HHS will publish a rule that amends the definition of “lawful presence” to include DACA recipients in Medicaid and Affordable Care Act coverage.

Medicaid is a joint federal-state program that provides health coverage to low income Americans and people with disabilities.

If the rule is finalized, “DACA recipients will be able to apply for coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace, where they may qualify for financial assistance based on income, and through their state Medicaid agency,” according to the White House fact sheet.

“Like all other enrollees, eligibility information will be verified electronically when individuals apply for coverage,” according to the fact sheet.

It’s unclear how long a new rule could take to implement — potentially, it could take years and legal challenges could also delay implementation. There are about 800,000 undocumented people in the program begun during the Obama administration, often referred to as Dreamers.

DACA recipients, and an estimated 10 million undocumented people, do not have access to Medicaid or coverage provided through the ACA, and were left out of federal aid during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic even though many were essential workers.

Biden also called on Congress to create a pathway for citizenship for DACA recipients. Senate Democrats made a last-ditch effort at the end of 2022 when they still controlled the House, but were unable to secure 10 Republican votes needed to reach the 60-vote threshold.

Those in the DACA program are also awaiting a Supreme Court decision that could determine the legality of the program that has existed for more than a decade. If a conservative court determines that the program is unlawful, it’s unclear what will happen to those in the program.

Applause from Democrats

Congressional Democrats welcomed the health coverage announcement.

U.S. Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada praised the Biden administration in a statement, and said that DACA recipients should have access to health care.

“DACA recipients are an essential part of our community in Nevada and they deserve access to quality, affordable health care,” she said.

U.S. Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas said the policy would help give DACA “recipients access to the same care as their neighbors and build healthier communities for all of us.”

“For more than ten years, hundreds of thousands of young Americans have been unfairly excluded from the affordable health insurance they need,” Castro said. “In the wake of a pandemic that disproportionately affected immigrant and frontline families, this long-overdue expansion is welcome news.”

In 2021, Castro, along with 90 House members, urged Biden to extend ACA benefits for DACA recipients during the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 1 million people in the U.S. died from the virus.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) also applauded the policy shift on Thursday.

“I want to applaud the Biden Administration for their efforts to protect and expand opportunities for Dreamers in our country. Having come from a family of immigrants, this is a deeply personal issue for me, and time and time again President Biden has shown his commitment to supporting this community,” Moore said in a written statement. “Because of the actions of the Biden-Harris Administration, healthcare options will now be expanded for the more than 7,000 Marylanders who are current DACA recipients, making them eligible for Medicaid and Affordable Care Act coverage for the first time. This proposal will have a significant impact on the lives of so many Marylanders and Dreamers across the country.”

During the 2023 General Assembly session, advocates pressed for passage of the Access to Care Act, which would have opened Maryland’s health care benefit exchange to all Marylanders regardless of immigration status. The measure passed the House of Delegates, but failed to move forward in the state Senate.

Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report. 


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DACA recipients to gain health coverage under new plan from Biden administration