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California voters sharply disagree on low-cost healthcare for immigrants

California has adopted a series of laws in recent years to help people in the country illegally, and polls show broad support for a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 2 million such immigrants living in the state.

But it’s a different story when it comes to providing them healthcare benefits.

California voters are sharply divided over whether free or low-cost health insurance should be granted to those who reside in the state without legal status, according to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.

The poll found that about 48% of voters believed that immigrants who live here illegally should be eligible to receive free or low-cost health insurance through Medi-Cal or a similar program. A statistically equal 47% said the group should not be eligible, while about 6% said they didn’t know or refused to answer the question.

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Backing for the benefit is split along ethnic lines, with 69% of Latino voters but only 39% of white voters responding that the group should be eligible. And it had an ideological cast as well: 68% of Democrats supported eligibility, yet only 19% of Republicans agreed.

Opposition was most passionate among supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, 90% of whom opposed eligibility. Opposition among backers of other candidates ranked substantially lower.

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Support has been growing for years among Californians for new immigration policies that would offer a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally. But Californians have remained somewhat conflicted, as the poll underscored, when it comes to offering costly services to those immigrants before they attain legal status.

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Immigrant rights activists have pushed a proposal to provide state-funded healthcare for people who reside in California without legal status. They came close to succeeding this summer, but lawmakers scaled back the proposal after cost estimates ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Instead, legislators set aside $40 million in the most recent state budget to provide Medi-Cal coverage to children younger than 19 years old, regardless of legal status.

The responses might have been different if the question had focused on only children who are in the country illegally, said Drew Lieberman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic firm that conducted the poll with the Republican firm American Viewpoint.

David Kanevsky of American Viewpoint said that although past research has shown that Californians are liberal on a lot of immigration issues, the “issue is not resolved” when it comes to government benefits that involve financial compensation for those in the country without authorization.

A couple of years ago, there was also a wide gap on a similar poll that asked whether immigrants without legal status should be allowed to obtain driver’s licenses. Nearly 69% of Latino voters but only 44% of whites supported the new driving privilege law, which had already gone into effect.

Support for medical insurance was personal for poll respondent Wendy Sagastume, 26, of Los Angeles, who was born in the United States and is of Guatemalan heritage.

“I have family members who are immigrants and I see how they work very hard and are sick. It’s not fair how I have insurance and they don’t,” she said. “If they are sick, they should at least have help paying for their medicine.”

Sagastume, a Democrat who considers herself liberal, said her aunt was hit with an astronomically expensive bill after she was hospitalized for five days because of Type 2 diabetes. The woman’s daughters pitched in to pay the bill.

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Michelle Tondu, a 50-year-old white woman who lives in Palos Verdes, disagreed. To her, it’s an “entirely financial decision,” she said, using a household budget analogy to argue that the state doesn’t have the resources to provide healthcare for people without legal status.

“I only have so much money in my checking account,” she said, and the priority is feeding her own family. “If I have leftover money I’m happy to feed my friends as well.

“But if I don’t have enough money, then I just have to focus on feeding my family,” said Tondu, a Republican.

Debbie Ruvolo, a conservative Latina from Mission Viejo, said she believes people without legal status shouldn’t be eligible for free or low-cost healthcare.

The benefit, she said, should be for only U.S. citizens.

About 20 years ago, Ruvolo said, she tried to get government financial assistance to pay for her child’s special formula, which she couldn’t afford because her husband was out of a job. The family was barely scraping by but she was denied help, she said.

“I will never forget waiting in the waiting room and people were there from other countries and getting help,” Ruvolo said. “To me the system is set up to be there as a temporary support for people, if you are down and out and it’s out of your control. In other words, the U.S. citizens are the ones paying taxes, so part of the tax money should go to that: to help U.S. citizens.”

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The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll of 1,500 registered state voters was done by telephone Aug. 29-Sept. 8. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points, higher for subgroups.

cindy.carcamo@latimes.com

Twitter: @thecindycarcamo

For more political news, go to www.latimes.com/politics.

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