EARLIER THIS month, the Supreme Judicial Court struck down a law that prevented certain legal immigrants residing in Massachusetts from being eligible for Commonwealth Care. The court found that the law, which required immigrants to be resident in the United States for five years before they could receive subsidized health care through the state of Massachusetts, represented unconstitutional discrimination “on the basis of alienage and national origin.’’ This decision will force Massachusetts to spend an additional $150 million to finance health care for those affected. Its consequences will be expensive for the state and may force painful budget cuts elsewhere. But it does not change the fact that the decision was entirely fair and necessary.
While many politicians extol the virtues of legal immigrants who “play by the rules,’’ the Massachusetts Legislature wasn’t so generous. Fearing that the state’s subsidized health care for low-income people might attract new immigrants, the Legislature sought to limit their benefits. Whether or not those fears had merit when the law was enacted in 2009, they don’t today, with other states implementing a national plan that’s quite similar to the Commonwealth’s. And so the provision was an act of discrimination without a reasonable basis.
The restrictions had been copied from similar rules in the 1996 federal welfare reform law, but that didn’t make them valid. After all, regulating immigration is a federal power, not one held by states. While the federal government can set such restrictions as part of a broader immigration policy, Massachusetts cannot.
It may be convenient to exclude legal immigrants from Commonwealth Care in order to cut costs, but it would be just as easy to exclude everyone from Cape Cod. The state cannot pick and choose which of its residents receive benefits based on where those residents were born. The SJC’s decision may be costly, but it was correct.