Alice Ollstein

Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.

Articles by Alice

“There may be some litigation,” President Trump said off-the-cuff as he signed an executive order purporting to suspend his administration’s policy of taking migrant children away from their parents.

It was an understatement.

In the subsequent chaos, with Congress increasingly unable to pass legislation to address the situation, an army of lawyers mobilized, filing cases aimed at permanently ending the Trump administration’s family separation policy and reuniting the thousands of parents and children still held in separate detention facilities in different states.

Late Tuesday night, the first of these cases struck home. A federal judge in San Diego blocked any future family separations and ordered the government to reunite all separated families within 30 days, adding that children under five years old who have been torn from their parents must be returned within 14 days, and all parents must be put in phone contact with their children within 10 days.

The decision is likely just the opening salvo in a long legal battle that will be waged in federal courts across the country. Here are the cases most likely to force the administration’s hand.

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The current family separation crisis — in addition to being a legal and human rights disaster — is a health care story.

This week, the Department of Health and Human Services is launching an emergency task force to work on reuniting the thousands of families the government forcibly separated — taking steps the agency usually reserves for responding to natural disasters or disease outbreaks. But without a plan in place for the reunifications, attorneys say the process could take months and some parents may never see their children again.

While some lawmakers have advocated for the use of DNA testing to help match up the separated families, and the companies MyHeritage and 23andMe have offered free kits to do so, many worry that the mass-collection of immigrants’ DNA poses a serious privacy violation.

Lawsuits by migrant parents challenging the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy have also cited the health effects of separating and incarcerating children and infants, which experts says is likely to cause long-term developmental challenges and trauma.

The fear the Trump administration has instilled in immigrant communities is also having a spillover effect for U.S. citizen children. NPR reports that many undocumented parents are withdrawing their citizen children from Medicaid and other government health programs they are legally entitled to use out of fear their enrollment will be used against them. The fear is well grounded, as the Trump administration is reportedly weighing changes to the green card system so that the use of government social programs like Medicaid counts against a parent applying for permanent residency, even if the child using the benefits is a U.S. citizen.

Meanwhile, in Michigan, the governor has finally signed Medicaid work requirements into law, months after the state attempted to pass a version that would have had a disparate impact on urban residents of color while exempting many rural white Michiganders. But the final rules, which now await approval from the Trump administration, are in several ways even more punitive. More than half a million people in Michigan will be subject to the new requirements, and as many as 54,000 people could lose their coverage as a result.

As we await a federal court decision on Kentucky’s Medicaid work requirements, which is expected within the next week, the state is once again threatening to roll back hundreds of thousands of people’s health coverage if the judge rules against it. Adding to the threats Kentucky made in oral arguments to kill the state’s Medicaid expansion entirely, the secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services recently said the state would move “probably right away” to eliminate dental, vision and pharmacy benefits for low-income enrollees.

And as the 2018 midterms ramp up, health care — and Obamacare specifically — has emerged as a key campaign issue. A majority of Democratic voters rank it as their top issue, and the party is hoping to mobilize them by touting its policy positions. Businessweek reports that 2018 Congressional candidates have already run 9,600 television spots supporting the Affordable Care Act and 17,000 mentioning Medicare.

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Tuesday morning to uphold the most recent iteration of President Donald Trump’s ban on immigrants and refugees from Libya, Iran, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, North Korea, Venezuela and Chad, rebuffing challengers’ arguments that the President’s policy was motivated by the racial animus toward Muslims that he repeatedly expressed in campaign speeches and on social media.

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House Republicans say they’re charging forward with a vote this week on a sweeping immigration bill that would fund President Trump’s border wall, slash legal immigration, make it more difficult for migrants to seek asylum, give DACA recipients a path to citizenship, and end the separation of migrant parents and children by detaining them together indefinitely.

But the deep, long-standing divisions within the Republican caucus on immigration, exacerbated by a mercurial president repeatedly undermining GOP leaders’ efforts to pass a bill, mean the chances of legislation making it to Trump’s desk are slim to none.

Adding to the immigration angst is the impending midterm election, in which the GOP faces an uphill battle to maintain control of the House. Torn between hardline conservative primary voters opposed to any path to citizenship for Dreamers or leniency for families crossing the border and more moderate suburban voters they need to hold key swing seats in the general election, lawmakers look increasingly unlikely to rally behind Speaker Paul Ryan’s so-called “compromise” bill.

Miles apart

The wheels began coming off Republicans’ latest push to pass an immigration bill early last week, with the far-right wing of the House slamming Ryan’s fairly conservative proposal for granting DACA recipients a path to citizenship and for cutting just some, not all, forms of family-based immigration.

“It’s amnesty. It doesn’t protect the American worker. Chain migration is still in it,” grumbled Rep. Lou Bartletta (R-PA), who is currently running for the Senate, just after the delay was announced. “I’m a big fat ‘no’ in capital letters and I’m going to encourage other people to vote no.”

“A lot of my constituents do not like this bill,” added Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL). “They’re worried about amnesty being granted.”

Moderate Republicans, already facing the public’s ire for backing down on a push to force a vote on a bipartisan immigration bill, have begun abandoning ship as well.

In the face of this backlash, Ryan delayed the original Thursday floor vote until Friday, and then pushed it into this week, raising doubts the vote would happen at all. As the effort crumbled, the finger-pointing began.

“The Freedom Caucus, it seems to me, got 80 to 90 percent of what they what,” groused Rep. Peter King (R-NY) to TPM. “That should be enough. This is probably one of the most consensus-type bills possible on such a controversial issue within our party. So it’s hard to see what their agenda is. It’s their way or the highway, I guess.”

Trump factor

Amid the distrust and division within the GOP caucus — which escalated into a shouting match on the House floor on Wednesday between the Ryan and the leader of the Freedom Caucus — President Trump has, by many accounts, made the situation markedly worse.

First, amid growing outrage over the administration’s mass-separation of migrant children and parents, the president insisted for days that only congressional action could address the situation. He then made an abrupt about-face and signed an executive order that purports to keep families together in immigration detention. Both the text of the executive order and administration statements over the next few days called on Congress to pass legislation, but the House’s already precarious efforts to do so were thrown further off course by President Trump.

Ahead of the President’s Tuesday visit to Capitol Hill, GOP lawmakers voiced hopes that Trump would rally them behind one of the two competing immigration bills and give them clarity on what he was willing to sign. Instead, Trump half-heartedly endorsed both bills, refused to take questions, and insulted Freedom Caucus member Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) — alienating Sanford’s allies whose votes are desperately needed to pass a bill.

“The president needs to understand that that may have actually lost him votes at this meeting,” Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) told TPM. “The reason he was there was to emphasize he had our backs and I think a different message was sent that day.”

As the House GOP leadership struggled to whip votes for their bill in the wake of this meeting, Trump wondered aloud “what is the purpose of the House doing good immigration bills” if they were likely to fail in the Senate, where Republicans have a much narrower majority. Then, on Friday, Trump tweeted again, telling House Republicans they were “wasting their time on Immigration.”

As leadership continued to insist a vote will be held, some lawmakers pointed to the lawmaker’s tweet as the final nail in the coffin.

“Torpedoed by tweet,” Rep. Ryan Costello quipped. “Tweet-pedoed.”

A unifying crisis

This week, even as the White House and many GOP lawmakers blamed the Democratic minority for their inability to pass an immigration bill, others openly admitted that the divided Republican caucus tends to only come together when motivated by a genuine crisis.

Over the past year, the crisis of the Trump administration abolishing the DACA program — putting hundreds of thousands of young immigrants at risk of deportation — was temporarily diffused by federal courts. With President Trump’s frequent flip-flopping making the already-difficult negotiations nearly impossible, Republican efforts to pass a bill to protect Dreamers subsequently fizzled.

Another crisis of Trump’s own making —the zero tolerance policy tearing apart migrant families — spurred lawmakers back into action. But many say Trump’s executive order has removed the urgency for them to act, even though the order still allows the administration to separate migrant children and parents and does nothing to reunite the thousands already separated.

“If the problem is no longer there, the Congress will definitely not act to solve a future problem,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) told reporters. “If you want to solve the problem, the pressure of trying to get families and kids back together in the shortest period of time is probably the kind of dynamic we need.”

Rep. Peter King (R-NY) echoed this sentiment, telling TPM: “This immediate crisis seems to be going away. And if they aren’t arresting families every weekend, then yeah, it’s going away, from the public eye. And if it’s not in the public eye, if you don’t have the dramatic footage, there is always another issue that comes along. There’s a new issue every week.”

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On Friday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed a strict Medicaid work requirement passed by the state’s GOP-controlled legislature. Under the new law, Michigan will join the dozen states who are actively seeking or have already received a waiver from the Trump administration to implement the new rules — which are expected to drop hundreds of thousands of people from the Medicaid rolls.

Michigan’s bill was significantly rewritten after the first version came under fire for having a significant racially disparate impact. Under the original proposal, people living in counties with unemployment rates above 8.5 percent would have been exempt from the work requirement. Those counties were overwhelmingly white, rural, and Republican. Low-income residents of color in Detroit and Flint, where the joblessness and poverty are extremely high, would not have received an exemption, because the wealthier suburbs surrounding those cities pulled the overall county unemployment rate below the threshold.

The blowback to that plan prompted Michigan lawmakers to make revisions, including the elimination of any exemptions for people in places where it is difficult to find a job.

“They can avoid the disparate impact by leveling up or leveling down, and they chose to level down,” Nicholas Bagley, a law professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in health policy, told TPM. “They could have chosen to extend the same solicitude they had for people in rural areas with high unemployment to people in cities with high unemployment, but did not do so. I think it speaks to how punitive this law will be for many people. You’re telling people to find work where there is no work to be had.” 

The revised law requires adult Medicaid enrollees who do not have a disability to work at least 20 hours per week in order to maintain their insurance. If they cannot find a job, they can complete community service to fulfill the requirement, but only for three months each year.

More than half a million people in Michigan would be subject to the new requirements, and as many as 54,000 people could lose their coverage as a result.

And if the Trump administration were to deny Michigan’s request for a waiver to implement the work requirement, or if a court were to strike them down as illegal under the Medicaid statute, the state is threatening to roll back their Medicaid expansion.

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With House Republicans’ immigration bills likely to go down in flames Thursday afternoon, many vulnerable GOP lawmakers are fearing the political ramifications of their inaction in the face of public outrage over the mass separation of migrant children and families.

But Rep. Pete King (R-NY) is not too concerned.

“Americans care more about Americans,” he told TPM a few hours before the vote.

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After weeks of insisting that only Congress could change the administration’s policy of separating migrant children and their parents, President Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday afternoon that would allow the government to detain families together as they await their immigration hearings. The administration will not, however, cease its policy of bringing criminal charges against immigrants who commit the civil violation of crossing the border unauthorized.

“We are keeping a very powerful border. And it continues to be a zero tolerance,” Trump said. “We have zero tolerance for people that enter our country illegally.”

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Senate Republicans calling for an end to the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant parents from their children are pushing legislation that would roll back due process, anti-trafficking and human rights protections — something the administration has long sought to accomplish — allowing for faster deportations of asylum-seekers and the indefinite detention of minors.

House Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing bills that would do all that, slash legal immigration and allocate tens of billions of dollars for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

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The Trump administration released its final rule on Tuesday for Association Health Plans — cheap, skimpy plans that don’t have to comply with many Obamacare protections and regulations. The plans, which cover far fewer services than ACA plans, are expected to lure millions of people out of the individual market, driving up premiums for the older and sicker people who remain.

But the biggest stories this week are coming from federal courts across the country that are grappling with the future of Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.

Though the Trump administration has thrown its weight behind a lawsuit from 20 GOP states seeking to kill what is left of the ACA, the arguments at the heart of the case are getting panned by legal experts — even those who backed previous lawsuits against the ACA. While the merits of the case may be dubious, its impact could be enormous. Among other effects, it would allow insurers to reject people with pre-existing conditions or charge them higher premiums, throw the premium subsidy system into chaos, tank the ACA’s online marketplace, and weaken protections for people with employer-sponsored insurance. A new study from the Urban Institute estimates that 17 million more people would be uninsured next year if the case succeeds.

In another major case impacting the ACA that flew under the radar last week, a three-judge panel at an federal appellate court said the Trump administration does not have to pay insurers the billions of dollars they say they’re owed as part of the ACA’s risk corridors. The companies say the payments to insurers with a disproportionate number of sick customers could have helped prevent the skyrocketing premiums we’re seeing today. At least one of the insurers has asked the full court to re-hear the case.

Meanwhile, a ruling is expected by the end of June in a lawsuit challenging Kentucky’s Medicaid work requirements, premiums, lockout periods, and benefits cuts. At the oral arguments in D.C. on Friday, TPM heard lawyers from Kentucky and the Trump administration attempt to convince the judge that striking down these rules — which are expected to boot nearly 100,000 people from the Medicaid rolls — will bring devastation both to Kentucky and much of the country. Kentucky has threatened to gut its Medicaid expansion entirely, leaving about 500,000 people uninsured, if the state waiver loses in court. The Trump administration also argued that an adverse ruling would deter all of the red and purple states currently considering expanding Medicaid to abandon their efforts. Attorneys for the challengers told TPM that those claims are “not legally relevant” and “dubious as a policy matter,” and the judge seemed skeptical as well.

Finally, the battle over Maine’s Medicaid expansion is living to fight another day. Gov. Paul LePage (R) is appealing a state court ruling ordering him to move forward with implementing the expansion his constituents voted for last November. LePage’s refusal to extend insurance to 70,000 more Mainers will likely drag out until he is term-limited out of office this fall.

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