Biden Expands ACA Health Insurance Program for DACA Recipients

Interview with Kica Matos, president of the National Immigration Law Center, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

On May 3, the Biden Administration announced an expansion of the nation’s health care program, the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.  President Biden’s exercise of his executive power will permit hundreds of thousands of participants in the DACA program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, to enroll in the ACA.

Almost one-third of the 580,000 DACA recipients don’t have access to insurance and until now were ineligible for federal health programs. Recipients of DACA are about three times more likely than the general public to be uninsured.  DACA recipients who are eligible for the ACA can apply for and receive coverage as early as Nov. 1 this year.

President Obama initiated the DACA program in 2012 to allow the so-called Dreamers — immigrants who came to the U.S. as children — to legally work, go to school or serve in the military.  Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Kica Matos, president of the National Immigration Law Center. Here she talks about how this change came about and what it will mean for the nation’s Dreamers.

KICA MATOS: This has been a significant priority for NILC and for other organizations that have advocated on behalf of DACA recipients. Recall that executive order that protected young people that are typically known as Dreamers from deportation and that allow them to have work permits. That executive order was issued in 2012 and at the time that the executive order was issued, DACA recipients were unfairly excluded from the definition of “lawfully present.” And so they have had no access to the Affordable Care Act or Medicaid or any type of health insurance during the time that the Affordable Care Act was being rolled out. NILC, United We Dream and a handful of other organizations were urging the federal government not to exclude DACA recipients, but they went ahead and excluded them. And so this order that the final rule as of last Friday opens the door for DACA recipients to now be able to access Obamacare.

MELINDA TUHUS: Just remind us, this was started by President Obama and then certainly, it’s been ongoing under President Biden, but what about when Trump was president? Did he just pause the whole thing, or did that just continue apace when he was president?

KICA MATOS: No, Trump went the extra mile. He actually tried to strike down DACA altogether. A handful of organizations immediately went into litigation mode and challenged Trump’s ruling, and it went all the way up to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court ruled a few years ago that it was not gonna rule on the constitutionality of DACA per se, but it ruled that the way that the Trump administration tried to strike down DACA was unconstitutional. And so DACA survived that challenge.

And DACA is now on a lifeline because, I believe it was last year, there was ongoing litigation and a judge, an anti-immigrant judge in Texas, Andrew Hanen ruled that DACA was unconstitutional because of the way that the rule was issued and that it was a violation of the Administrative Procedures Act.

And now DACA is once again making its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. But for now, anyone who is currently a DACA recipient can renew their status and the Department of Homeland Securities is accepting applications for people who want to apply for DACA, but it is unable to pause any new applications. So if you currently have DACA and you wanna renew your status, you can do that. If you are eligible for DACA and you had never applied for DACA and you wanna apply now, you can submit your application. But the Department of Homeland Security is simply unable to process it until the court will rule once and for all.

MELINDA TUHUS: Wow. It’s a long legal journey.

KICA MATOS: You know, we often don’t talk about the impact of long legal journeys, but this has been really painful for those who are recipients of DACA. They’re mostly young people who came to the United States when they were children. On average, they’ve lived in the United States for 22 years. They’re now in their late 20s, early 30s. Most of them, 75 percent of them work. They pay billions in taxes. And they have to go through this anxiety-provoking experience where they don’t know whether from one day to the next, they will be able to continue to lead meaningful lives because DACA’s still on the balance and no final decision has been issued yet.

MELINDA TUHUS: So how many people does this cover — this access to healthcare coverage?

KICA MATOS: There are now on average, my understanding is that there are about 580,000 DACA recipients. So anyone at the White House estimates are such that they believe about a 100,000 DACA recipients will benefit from this. And my interpretation of that is that there are a 100,000 people who will likely apply for Obamacare. The remaining DACA recipients who won’t apply for Obamacare likely have some kind of healthcare coverage now likely through their employer.

MELINDA TUHUS: Is there a next step that NLK or other immigrant rights groups are contemplating to expand health coverage even more among the undocumented population?

KICA MATOS: The next step for us is really to pivot to make sure that everybody who’s eligible now for Obamacare knows what the next steps are.

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