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Playing Poor Children Against Jobless Is Ugly Game of Survival

01/14/2014 01:31 pm ET | Updated Mar 16, 2014

Sometimes when a member of Congress says or does something that insults a whole class of people one has to decide whether the member is being mean-spirited or is woefully uninformed.

But when a group of lawmakers gets behind a plan that plays one group of vulnerable people against another in a crass political game of "Survivor," it is clearly a morally reprehensible act.

The shameful attempt to make game of the most vulnerable among us is likely to play out in the Senate arena this week, where Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, and conservative teammates are forcing a choice between poor, mostly Latino children and those who are jobless in a struggling economy.

In exchange for an extension of the unemployment insurance coverage for the nation's jobless workers that expired in December, Sen. Ayotte and her allies propose to deny eligibility for the refundable Child Tax Credit (CTC) to low-wage, working families. They are seeking to prevent five million children -- most of whom are U.S. citizens -- from using the CTC program, which is proven to reduce child poverty.

Senators should think twice before voting on this proposal, as they will realize that it is bad policy and really bad politics. Here's why.

The sponsors of this strident proposal have promoted the falsehood that their rollback of the CTC would cut out fraud, even though the people they are targeting are eligible for the CTC. What they really are doing is cutting off a lifeline for two million low-wage families, hurting children and the economy. As more than 60 advocates of working families, children, immigrants and others noted in a letter to the Senate, "Integrity in any system is important, but punishing children and their tax-paying families is not the answer..."

Targeting Latino and immigrant children is obviously a bad political move and shows the emptiness of the rhetoric conservatives have used to reach out to this fast-growing segment of the electorate after Latinos, through their votes, clearly demonstrated their displeasure with conservatives in recent elections.

Also, tax credits that benefit children are widely supported by all voters. A poll released last month by the bipartisan First Focus Campaign for Children found that 68 percent of poll respondents oppose cuts to tax credits such as the CTC, including 59 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of Democrats.

Let's not forget that this strident move is unnecessary. The extension of unemployment insurance benefits has traditionally been considered an emergency item that does not require a budgetary offset. However, conservatives are using for political fodder the poor and immigrants who are compelled to pay income and payroll taxes. And some Democratic senators seem poised to follow in their misguided footsteps and vote for this harmful amendment.

If there must be an offset, there are plenty of corporate tax loopholes that can be closed. Pitting children against vets and the unemployed is unnecessary and cruel. It betrays our better selves. If politics and policy do not persuade the Senate to do what is right, perhaps each senator should consider whether this choice is moral. When I was an immigrant child, I saw that my family, community, and government believed in its and my future by investing in economic support programs for working families. Denying a vital tax credit that helps secure the economic well-being of millions of children -- four million of whom are U.S. citizens -- sends a dangerous message that we will no longer invest in our future.

Senators -- from either party -- who support this amendment will show how they truly view immigrants, regardless of whether they supported the Senate immigration reform bill. They should not forget that today's children who may be denied CTC are tomorrow's voters.

Americans, no matter the color of their skin or country of their birth, should demand more of their leaders than a cynical attempt to pit vulnerable groups against each other. It's time to pass unemployment insurance without measures that will hurt our nation's children and economy. It's quite simple: this amendment is economically unsound, immoral, and political suicide.