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Are We Next? Immigrant Rights and Access to Health Care

by Rashi VenkataramanPEP Young Women's Leadership Council

Zahira Domínguez, a fifteen year-old girl, entered Parkland Memorial Hospital last year. Born in Mexico, she immigrated to the United States illegally and was attending a public high school in Dallas. However, she didn’t enter Parkland Memorial because of a sprained ankle or headache. She entered because she was in labor (Preston).

This situation occurs at hospitals all over the country, most frequently in states such as California, Texas, Arizona, and New York; and the trend does not show any signs of slowing down. Instead, situations involving illegal immigrants and health care are becoming more and more complex in today’s political arena.

In America today, politicians are using the pretext of national security to slowly eliminate our basic rights. For example, they aren’t restricting you from making choices about your body, they’re just telling you what you can and can’t do (i.e., have an abortion). Throughout American history, a major issue of contention has been illegal immigration and what rights undocumented immigrants should have. Since the days of Ellis Island, immigrants entering our country without permission have faced hardships, public harassment, and inequalities of every kind. And all this in a nation that prides itself on being a melting pot of diversity.

The most recent example of problems facing undocumented immigrants is that of health care. For example, look at the case of an undocumented female immigrant becoming pregnant. Previously, Medicaid provided her with pre-natal care (including emergency services for labor and delivery) as well as care for the infant for up to one year. This was mainly justified by the notion that the infant (an automatic citizen) should always be the top priority, and statistics seemed to support this claim. For example, although the number of births to undocumented immigrants is not known, it was found that Medicaid pays for more than one third of the four million births that take place each year in the United States (Pear). Most would agree that restricting Medicaid funding for pre-natal care and infant health care seems cruel or barbaric.

However, under last year’s Deficit Reduction Act, Medicaid documentation regulation was “tightened…because some law makers were concerned that immigrants were fraudulently claiming United States citizenship to get Medicaid” (Pear). Under a new policy, Medicaid still pays for the costs of birth and delivery for children born to undocumented immigrants, but to get post-natal care the parents must provide “documentation demonstrating the infants’ citizenship and apply for coverage under the program” (Dunham).

Imagine the position for girls like Zahira Domínguez, who after giving birth to her child may feel trapped in her circumstances. She cannot return to her own country because she needs her immediate family to help her with raising the infant and yet if she applies for Medicaid for her child, she may be faced with deportation.

These situations can be very intimidating for new parents. As a result of this recent legislation, many new parents that are undocumented immigrants may choose not to seek out health care for their new infants. Even if they do choose to seek out care, help could still be a long time away. As a spokesperson for the Tennessee Medicaid Program pointed out, “we will not be able to cover any services for the newborn until a Medicaid application is filed. That could be days, weeks or months after the child is born” (Pear).

Representing Georgia’s 9th district, the late Representative Charlie Norwood was one of the chief supporters of the new change. He argued for the reform, stating on his website that the “current system has led Medicaid down the path to bankruptcy, which would render the program unable to provide services to any person in need” (Norwood: Healthcare Issues).

I couldn’t agree more with the Congressman’s theory that a financially bankrupt Medicaid program would not be able to help those in need. However, I strongly disagree with his suggestion that the solution to Medicaid deficits is to cut funding for healthcare for newborn infants, especially considering that these infants are born in the United States, and therefore, are already automatically American citizens. Have other members of Congress thought about these issues? Have they thought about what legislation like this will do to these families if their children contract a disease or illness at their most vulnerable moment in life?

A recent New York Times editorial states that there are approximately twelve million undocumented immigrants living in the United States right now. New mothers and pregnant women no doubt account for some percentage of this large number, “to demonize them all – and to punish their babies – is to take the immigration debate into depths of cruelty and paranoia” (“A Crackdown on Newborns”). If pre-natal care and general healthcare for infants in their first year of life is restricted for children born on American soil, than can the government continue to boast about its maximum efforts to protect its own citizens? The debate about cutting health insurance benefits for a young child seems ripe for a glitzy feature in a news magazine or news channel, but (perhaps because it carries the taint of illegal immigration), media outlets seem to be pushing this story to the side.

This attack on healthcare is a step towards not only restricting immigration, but also in eliminating any possible national healthcare program. And those who are so vehemently against such a program are going to first go after infants born to undocumented immigrants, then go after undocumented immigrants, then immigrants, and who knows from there. Will we be next?


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