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California Is 1st State To Offer Health Benefits To Adult Undocumented Immigrants

Gov. Gavin Newsom (left) talks with members of a Diabetes Talking Circle during his visit to the Sacramento Native American Health Center in Sacramento, Calif., on Tuesday.
Rich Pedroncelli
Gov. Gavin Newsom (left) talks with members of a Diabetes Talking Circle during his visit to the Sacramento Native American Health Center in Sacramento, Calif., on Tuesday.

California has become the first state in the country to offer government-subsidized health benefits to young adults living in the U.S. illegally.

The measure signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday extends coverage to low-income, undocumented adults ages 25 and younger for the state's Medicaid program.

Since 2016, California has allowed children under 18 to receive taxpayer-backed health care despite immigration status. And state officials expect that the plan will cover roughly 90,000 people.

The idea of giving health benefits to undocumented immigrants is supported by most of the Democratic candidates running for president, and California's move comes as the Trump administration continues to ramp up its hard-line crackdown on illegal immigration. On Tuesday, Newsom said the state law draws a sharp contrast with Trump's immigration policies.

"If you believe in universal health care, you believe in universal health care," Newsom said. "We are the most un-Trump state in America when it comes to health policy."

In California, extending health benefits to undocumented immigrants is widely popular. A March survey conducted by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that almost two-thirds of state residents support providing coverage to young adults who are not legally authorized to live in the country.

California, the institute notes, has more immigrants than any other state. And an estimated 14% of them are living in the state without legal status.

A national poll suggests that many Americans across the country are far less accepting of the notion of giving health coverage to those who came into the U.S. illegally. A CNN poll conducted after the Democratic debates last month found that 59% of those surveyed do not think government-backed health coverage should be provided to undocumented immigrants.

In most states, people living in the country illegally are not eligible for federal health insurance programs like Medicaid and Medicare, except in some cases, like medical emergencies and pregnancies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Republican lawmakers in California criticized the law, arguing that the state should be spending health care dollars on those living in the state legally.

"We are going to be a magnet that is going to further attract people to a state of California that's willing to write a blank check to anyone that wants to come here," said Republican state Sen. Jeff Stone at a May legislative hearing. "We are doing a disservice to citizens who legally call California their home."

The plan does not cover all unauthorized immigrants under 25, only those whose incomes are low enough to qualify. State officials estimate in the first year the program will cover about 138,000 residents and cost California taxpayers $98 million.

Trump has publicly attacked Newsom's plans.

"It's crazy what they're doing. It's crazy," Trump told reporters last week. "And it's mean, and it's very unfair to our citizens. And we're going to stop it, but we may need an election to stop it."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.