Health and Immigration: Two Issues, Not One

Washington Matters

Health and Immigration: Two Issues, Not One

Anyone who thinks the fight to overhaul health care and the fight to overhaul immigration laws are unrelated hasn't been paying much attention -- at least not to the fact that many of those who oppose one oppose the other. It's one more problem for those seeking to fix health care.

The town meetings on health care have been filled with questions on immigration -- usually from conservatives insisting that any move to cover the uninsured should apply only to American citizens. "Why should we pay for foreigners?" the argument goes, especially those who came here illegally.

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The argument got a boost this week with the release of a new study from the Center for Immigration Studies. It concluded that the cost of covering immigrants, who account for 27 percent of the uninsured, largely because they their unemployment rate is high, would be about $1.5 trillion over the next decade. What the study doesn't calculate is the amount of care uninsured immigrants are already getting when they go to emergency rooms, which arguably costs even more than if they were in the system from the get-go.

Understand, of course, that there doesn't seem to be any such thing as a strictly objective immigration study. Several land in my in-box every week and most come from groups with a specific agenda. They get attacked within hours of being issued. This study by the Center for Immigration Studies, which describes itself as an organization that supports lowering the number of immigrants but treating them better, immediately drew complaints from the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group that blasted the study as biased. And within hours, there was a contrary view from the Immigration Policy Center arguing that it makes economic, not just social sense, to provide health care for immigrants.  


Conservative Republicans and anti-immigration talk show hosts have used the immigration issue to attack Democratic health care plans, saying the whole idea of a public option is a back-door attempt to cover illegals. Rep. Nathan Deal, a Republican from Georgia, offered an amendment to require people to prove citizenship before getting publicly funded care. It was easily defeated by Democrats, but Deal will keep trying. He is a champion of anti-immigration efforts and a proponent of legislation to deny automatic citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil.

Immigration and health reform are two very important issues that shouldn't be combined this way and don't need to be. We shouldn't use the health care bill to deny coverage to immigrants who are already getting care now. If we want to do that, we should do it as part of an immigration overhaul. I'm not suggesting we should do it -- In fact, it makes about as much sense as trying to deport 12 million illegal immigrants who already live in the U.S., but if that's the goal is should be part of the immigration debate next year, not the health debate. 

The health care debate is complicated enough with that. And there's just no excuse for anti-immigrant forces to keep trying to combine the two issues.