LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- A long-shot attempt to repeal state-funded prenatal care services for illegal immigrants drew criticism Thursday from a variety of Nebraska groups.
Advocates for children, immigrants and medical clinics convened at the Capitol to oppose a bill by Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont. Several people said Janssen, a Republican candidate for governor, was exploiting the issue for political gain.
Janssen presented the repeal measure to the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee. Lawmakers restored coverage last year for the unborn children of the women, after a bitter fight in the Legislature and with Gov. Dave Heineman. Heineman opposes the services.
"I'm concerned that when we allow these state benefits at public expense, we reward illegal behavior and divert limited resources from necessary services for legal residents," Janssen said.
Janssen said he introduced the bill because the Legislature has new members who have not yet weighed in on the issue.
Shirley A. Mora James, president of the Nebraska Hispanic Bar Organization, said the measure would deny prenatal care to children who would be born in the United States. James said the lack of care could force expecting mothers to consider an abortion.
"You profess to be pro-life and have family values, then ... stop attacking the health and very lives of these innocent U.S. babies," she said to Janssen. "You need to start protecting and advocating for them, or else you're nothing but a hypocrite for political self-gain."
The bill is unlikely to advance. Four lawmakers on seven-member committee voted in favor of restoring prenatal care services last year. The issue divided lawmakers who argued that the issue was foremost about unborn children, who have no immigration status, and those who cast it as a tax giveaway to illegal immigrants.
"I take offense to people making immigration, illegal or not, a campaign issue," said Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, a Republican committee member who promised to help kill Janssen's bill.
Yazmin Gamez, a deferred-action immigrant now in college, told lawmakers that access to Medicaid coverage helped ensure a safe birth for her 4-year-old daughter. Gamez was diagnosed with an iron deficiency while pregnant, which can increase the risk of early deliveries and low birth weight. Gamez urged lawmakers to kill the bill.
"Would you allow a small segment of Nebraska women to experience third-world pregnancies?" she asked.
A Heineman spokeswoman has said the Republican governor supports Janssen's bill. The governor's Medicaid chief testified in favor of it.
Nebraska Medicaid chief Vivianne Chaumont said the state offers Medicaid coverage to pregnant women and children who are legal, permanent residents. Chaumont said the state's expenses didn't increase during the time when the women were ineligible for prenatal care. Women who didn't qualify for prenatal care were still eligible for emergency birth services under Medicaid, she said.
"You can't assume that a Medicaid-covered woman is getting prenatal care, and you cannot assume that a woman who is not covered is not getting prenatal care," Chaumont said. "A lot of people pay for their prenatal care."
Marty Brown, an Omaha spokesman for the group Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, said lawmakers created a "free feeding tube" for illegal immigrants when they passed the measure last year.
"If seems like we're pandering to illegals, and we shouldn't be doing this," Brown said.
On top of that, 25 of the 30 senators who voted for the override are still in the Legislature -- a majority that can ensure the bill isn't approved. Several newly elected members have also stated their support for the prenatal care services.
Nebraska is among 15 states that offer taxpayer-funded care directly to the unborn, which have no immigration status in the eyes of law, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The others are Arkansas, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.
Janssen's bill was opposed by Nebraska Right to Life, the Nebraska Hospital Association, the Nebraska Catholic Conference, Nebraska Appleseed and Disability Rights Nebraska.