Last week, Massachusetts announced that it is facing massive budget shortfalls, and is not likely to be able to fund its statewide healthcare program as it is currently structured. Their solution to that problem is to drop 30,000 legal immigrants from the program, by limiting it to U.S. citizens, and permanent residents who have been in the country for at least five years. The state estimates that the move will save $130 million per year. To his credit, Governor Deval Patrick is resisting the cuts, and has attempted to restore enough funding to the budget to at least continue partial coverage for immigrants.
Unsurprisingly, this proposal has been met with dismay from immigrants’ rights groups like MIRA, which told the New York Times that this plan sends the message that health care reform either cannot be done at all, or can only be done by excluding immigrants.
True. But as long as we’re on the subject, is there a reason why no one is mentioning that the plan also seems pretty clearly unconstitutional?
As a rule, states aren’t allowed to discriminate between aliens and citizens solely because of their citizenship status. There are a few narrow exceptions, such as jobs where there is a good reason to believe that U.S. citizenship is a necessity for the substantive tasks the employee will carry out. But in general, they must treat all state residents equally, regardless of whether or not they are U.S. citizens.
That’s because aliens are a “discrete and insular minority,” and therefore a protected class for the purposes of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. Most group classifications – “people who wear Save Darfur thongs,” “gum-chewers,” “taxi drivers”- don’t get any special protection. If a government wants to discriminate between them and other citizens, then it just has to show that there is some “rational basis” for believing that the law in question will help to achieve a legitimate state goal.
However, if a government wants to discriminate on the basis of a protected characteristic, such as race, gender, or alienage, then it must meet a higher standard, “strict scrutiny.” Under that standard, a state has to prove three things: (1) that the discriminatory statute serves a “compelling state interest”; (2) that it is “narrowly tailored” to achieve that interest, and (3) that the law in question is the “least restrictive means” available to achieve the stated goal. Roughly translated, this means that the state has to prove that they can’t achieve their goal without discriminating against a protected class, that they are not discriminating any more than necessary, and that the goal in question is really, really important.
In other words, Massachusetts is going to have to do better than “we’re broke.” Their impecuniousness may be sad for them, but it’s not enough to satisfy strict scrutiny. Invidious discrimination against minorities could often be cheaper -imagine how much more money they could save if they also dropped women and black people from the program!- but that’s not enough to make it constitutional.
In case there was any doubt about that, the Supreme Court has already struck down an essentially identical law. In Graham v. Richardson, the Court examined an Arizona welfare law that only granted benefits to U.S. citizens, and aliens who had been resident in the U.S. for a certain number of years. (Sound familiar?) The state argued that it needed to restrict benefits to save money, but the Court found that argument unimpressive. “[T]he justification of limiting expenses is particularly inappropriate and unreasonable when the discriminated class consists of aliens. Aliens, like citizens, pay taxes and may be called into the armed forces…. There can be no ‘special public interest’ in tax revenues to which aliens have contributed on an equal basis with the residents of the State. ” It’s unclear to me how Massachusetts’ plan is different in any meaningful respect from the unconstitutional Arizona law at issue in Graham.
I think that some confusion may have arisen from the fact that the federal government has far more ability to discriminate against aliens than states do. The Supreme Court has consistently held that the power of the political branches (that’s Congress, and the President) to decide immigration policy includes the right to determine what federal benefits immigrants can access when they get here. But that power is expressly limited to the federal political branches -it’s often known as their “plenary power” over immigration, because they get all of it and don’t leave any for the states, (or even, for the most part, the courts).
So, that means that federal medical benefits like Medicaid can be limited to citizens without raising an equal protection problem, but state medical benefits cannot. The difference between the two situations is not unlike the difference between forcing your child to stay in your house until she finishes her homework (good parenting), and forcing someone else’s child to (kidnapping). Just as parents can’t make other people’s children live by their rules, states can’t set immigration policy, even when the policy in question involves state benefits.
Sorry, Massachusetts. You’re super nice and all, but I just don’t think this is going to work out.