TIME Immigration

Obama Defends Immigration Record, Urges Health Insurance for Hispanics

Obama talks with Acevedo and Diaz Balart at the Newseum in Washington
President Barack Obama talks with moderators Enrique Acevedo of Univision and Jose Diaz Balart of Telemundo during a commercial break in a town hall-style television forum to encourage Latino Americans to enroll in Obamacare health insurance plans, at the Newseum in Washington March 6, 2014. Jonathan Ernst—Reuters

President combats criticism of his administration's record on deportations

President Barack Obama rebuffed criticism Thursday that he’s lost credibility in the Spanish-speaking community because of his administration’s record of increased deportations, saying he’s not the “Deporter-in-Chief.”

“I am the Champion-in-Chief of comprehensive immigration reform,” Obama said in a televised interview with anchors from Spanish-language networks Telemundo and Univision. And he implored Hispanics not to forgo signing up for insurance under the new health care reform law if they’re upset with him. “You don’t punish me by not signing up for health care—you’re punishing yourself or your family,” Obama said.

His remarks came two days after Janet Murguia, head of the prominent Latino advocacy group National Council of La Raza, called Obama the “Deporter-in-Chief.” Immigration reform advocates have been increasingly frustrated at Obama’s failure to push an overhaul of the system through Congress even as the administration continues to deport undocumented immigrants in large numbers.

Obama’s interview was part of the administration’s continuing outreach efforts to the Hispanic community ahead of the March 31 deadline to sign up for new health insurance under the law. Obama said that “95 percent” of the problems with Spanish-language health insurance exchange websites have been resolved, but suggested too many procrastinators could crash the system at the end of the month.

“If everybody waits until the last minute, if everyone waits until March 27 or March 28, then in some ways it is a self-fulfilling prophesy,” Obama said. “If you have five million people all going on the website on the same time, even if it’s a great website that’s working well now—then yes there are going to be delays because there are only so many people that any website can absorb at a single time.

“Start now, start today,” Obama added.

Hispanics represent 25 percent of the 41.3 million uninsured non-elderly U.S. citizens and others living legally in the U.S, according to Bloomberg. Over the first three months the health care exchanges were open, Hispanics were less aware than whites of the marketplace, according to a Commonwealth Fund Marketplace Survey, and encountered scores of gramatical errors once the Spanish site, CuidadoDeSalud.gov, went online.

In Thursday’s interview, Obama was pressed on the concerns mixed-citizenship families may have, with the anchors showing a video of an undocumented mother afraid that registering her American children for health care could lead them to be taken away from her.

“The mother should not be fearful,” Obama said. “None of the information that is provided in order for you to obtain health insurance is in any way transferred to immigration services.”

In the past week, high-profile Democrats and Hispanic advocates have increased their criticism of the Administration’s record-high deportation levels, including Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. An estimated 1,100 illegal immigrants are deported per day from the United States, according to the Washington Post.

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