President Obama said this week that his health care plan won't cover illegal immigrants, but argued that's all the more reason to legalize them and ensure they eventually do get coverage.
He also staked out a position that anyone in the country legally should be covered - a major break with the 1996 welfare reform bill, which limited most federal public assistance programs only to citizens and longtime immigrants.
"Even though I do not believe we can extend coverage to those who are here illegally, I also don't simply believe we can simply ignore the fact that our immigration system is broken," Mr. Obama said Wednesday evening in a speech to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. "That's why I strongly support making sure folks who are here legally have access to affordable, quality health insurance under this plan, just like everybody else.
Mr. Obama added, "If anything, this debate underscores the necessity of passing comprehensive immigration reform and resolving the issue of 12 million undocumented people living and working in this country once and for all."
Republicans said that amounts to an amnesty, calling it a backdoor effort to make sure current illegal immigrants get health care.
"It is ironic that the president told the American people that illegal immigrants should not be covered by the health care bill, but now just days later he's talking about letting them in the back door," said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
"If the American people do not want to provide government health care for illegal immigrants, why would they support giving them citizenship, the highest honor America can bestow?" Mr. Smith said.
But immigrant rights groups see the speech as a signal that Mr. Obama is committed to providing health care coverage for anyone in the United States legally, regardless of their citizenship status.
"It's the first time I've certainly heard, publicly, him talking more about legal immigrants," said Eric Rodriguez, vice president for research and advocacy at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR). "I think that was certainly positive progress. We were absolutely concerned about not hearing that."