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The Unmagnificent Seven

Raúl Labrador has quit the House Gang of Eight. That doesn't bode well for immigration reform.

Getty/Mark Wilson

If there was one piece of major legislation that had a chance of getting through Congress this year, it was immigration reform, but the bill may have suffered a setback. In the House of Representatives, the bipartisan Gang of Eight, modeled upon the Senate’s group, was drafting a compromise bill. But this week Raul Labrador of Idaho, a Hispanic and a Tea Party Republican congressman who played a role in the group similar to that which Senator Marco Rubio plays in the Senate Gang of Eight, defected, and says he will now vote against immigration reform.

Labrador has only given the vaguest explanation of why he left, but it centers on the healthcare provisions of the group’s proposal. “The framework of the bill has changed in a way that I can no longer support,” Labrador announced on Wednesday. “Like most Americans, I believe that health care is first and foremost a personal responsibility.” After speaking with people familiar with the House negotiations, including people on the Hill, I have finally discovered what happened, and it doesn’t reflect well on Labrador or on the right-wing Republicans whose views he represents.

After agreeing to the outlines of the Senate bill, Labrador insisted that the House version require that those 12 million undocumented immigrants who will become registered provisional immigrants (RPIs) not only purchase health insurance without any subsidies, but also be responsible for whatever additional healthcare costs, including emergency care, that they incur. According to Labrador’s approach, if they fail to pay their healthcare bills, they would be subject to deportation.

Labrador’s position has been pushed by a number of House Republicans. If strictly adhered to, it would undermine the Senate bill’s promise to allow undocumented immigrants to live and work in the United States. The median income of these immigrants is about $35,000 a year, and even the most barebones health insurance would be likely to cost a typical family about $13,295. In addition, these immigrants could not possibly afford the extra costs of a catastrophic illness.

Committee members, who include four Democrats and three other Republicans, and whose views are close to the Senate plan, tried to reason with Labrador. They suggested that he consider what it would mean for a worker on provisional status who suffered from leukemia or who had a bad car accident. If they couldn’t pay for their treatment in an emergency room, would it then be right to deport them? Or should they somehow avoid medical altogether and be left to die? When the alternatives were posed in this stark manner, Labrador backed off.

But Labrador still insisted that the group come up with a proposal that recognized his concern that the RPIs take responsibility for their own healthcare. He didn’t want anything in the bill that suggested that taxpayers—say, through emergency room subsidies—might have to pay for their care. But the group was not able to agree to a compromise, and so Labrador left. To Labrador’s credit, he displayed a basic humanity. But he couldn’t reconcile that with conservative Republican reluctance to grant taxpaying provisional immigrants any government healthcare subsidies.

Labrador’s defection probably means that a majority of House Republicans will oppose anything resembling the Senate bill, which, harsh as it is, would not deport immigrants for failing to bill huge emergency room bills. The Group of Seven (now that Labrador has left) is expected to offer something resembling the Senate bill, but it will probably get caught up in the usual wrangling. Boehner has already said the House would not simply endorse the Senate bill. Without his support, the Gang of Seven’s effort may not even come up for a vote.

According to Democratic sources, however, that outcome might be alright with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. What Pelosi and other supporters of the Senate fear most is that House Republicans come up with and pass a mean-spirited immigration bill that would be unacceptable to House and Senate Democrats. They want the Senate to go first and pass a bill, which would put pressure on the House to follow suit. So these Democrats don’t regard Labrador’s defection as fatal to immigration reform.

That’s the positive way to look at it. The less positive way is that Labrador’s defection, combined with wavering from Rubio, indicates a lack of urgency among House and Senate Republicans to pass any bill at all. Republicans may believe, too, that they can ride the wave of administration scandal to victory without courting the Hispanic vote. That’s probably short-sighted politically, but it also deeply irresponsible at a time when most Americans finally recognize that the country has to come to terms with the 12 million people who live and work in our midst, but don’t enjoy the rudiments of citizenship.