Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders supports allowing some of the nation's undocumented immigrants to obtain health-care coverage under the Affordable Care Act, he told Democratic lawmakers on Thursday.
The Vermont senator, who is running a competitive race against Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, made the comments during a 45-minute meeting with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, according to attendees. The 26-member group is comprised entirely of House and Senate Democrats.
Aides later said that Sanders believes that in certain cases, undocumented immigrants should be able to purchase health insurance through the exchanges set up under Obamacare, using their own money. The senator has not advocated allowing the undocumented immigrants to receive federal subsidies, his aides said.
The meeting, held in the Longworth House Office Building, was Sanders's first formal meeting with his Latino colleagues to talk about his presidential campaign, and the exchange came the same morning that his campaign announced raising $26 million during the third quarter, nearly beating Clinton's fundraising haul.
Clinton enjoys a wide lead among Hispanic Democrats and on Thursday announced the formation of "Latinos for Hillary," which will focus on building Latino support for her campaign.
Sanders's support for expanding the Affordable Care Act could put Clinton in a tough spot.
Federal law bars undocumented immigrants from enrolling in health-care exchanges. But on Wednesday, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a vocal immigration reform supporter, and other Democrats introduced a bill that would extend Affordable Care Act coverage to undocumented immigrants.
Gutierrez said Wednesday that expanding the law would create younger and healthier patient pools, likely leading to lower insurance costs for Americans already enrolled in insurance exchanges.
Sanders endorsed the concept during the meeting in response to a question from one of the caucus members, attendees said.
The meeting on Thursday comes as Sanders is trying to step up his outreach to both African American and Latino voters, two groups he hasn’t had to court during his long representation of a state that is about 95 percent white. Both will be key constituencies once the Democratic Party's nominating process moves beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, states with predominantly white populations.
During the meeting, Sanders conceded that he has work to do on his outreach to Latinos, attendees said. To that end, he told the group that he has hired two Latino Democratic activists to help work on Hispanic outreach.
The first is Chuck Rocha, a consultant who has experience working on political campaigns and with labor unions and served as the national labor director for the Democratic presidential campaigns of Dick Gephardt in 2004 and John Edwards in 2008. The other is Arturo Carmona, the executive director of Presente.org, a Latino advocacy organization based in Los Angeles that has been sharply critical of the Obama administration's immigration policy.
When President Obama announced last year that he would wait until after the midterm elections to make promised changes to immigration policy provoked raw anger, Carmona told The Washington Post that "for Obama, politics comes before Latino lives." He said Obama had "raised the hopes of millions of Latinos across the country by promoting anticipation for an executive action, only to smash them for perceived political gain."
Rocha and Carmona didn't immediately return requests for comment on Thursday.
Sanders also recently hired Lilia Chacon, a former broadcast journalist from Chicago. She is both serving as Sanders’s Iowa press secretary and helping with outreach nationally to Latino voters.
On the campaign trail, Sanders’s hour-long stump speech now includes a section about immigration reform, in which he says he will press to bring 11 million undocumented workers “out of the shadows.” Among other things, the senator has pledged to expand Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to include many parents, with the goal of keeping families united.
As part of his outreach efforts, earlier this week Sanders fielded questions in Spanish on the Facebook page of Univision.