Health care reform should include immigrants, Latino groups say

The heated debate surrounding health care reform should not exclude anyone, including legal and undocumented immigrants, civil rights leaders and Latino labor groups say.

It’s not right that immigrants leave their home countries for a better life in the U.S. and when they get sick are left with little access to affordable health care, they say.

Many Obama supporters in the Latino community understand that the battle for health care reform led by President Obama and his administration is a very urgent matter for all Americans. They agree the debate must be productive and constructive.

But it should also be inclusive, they say.

Yet the fact that U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently emphasized that “illegal” immigrants would not be covered under the current health care proposals, has led to growing concern by many Latino groups.

Hector Sanchez, policy and research director with the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, says his group supports universal health coverage that includes every person living in the U.S. regardless of their place of origin or legal status.

Health care is a basic human right and it’s the right thing to include everyone, Sanchez told the World by phone. “It’s also not economically efficient if immigrants are excluded,” he added.

Jennifer Ng’andu, deputy director of the Health Policy Project of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), said her organization “wants to support health care reform to be as inclusive as possible with full access for the entire Latino community including immigrants.”

The immigrant population is a growing community and how we incorporate them in public policy is very important, especially when it comes to health care, Ng’andu told the World.

She pointed out that 4 million U.S. citizen children live with undocumented parents throughout the country. Many of these families do not have health coverage, she noted.

“We believe that everyone should share in the responsibility to correct the problems with our current health care system,” she said. Immigrants pay taxes and boost the economy in many ways and they, like everyone else, should have access to affordable health care, said Ng’andu.

It’s unfortunate that those opposing health care reform are using anything, include anti-immigrant prejudice, to stop the debate from moving forward, including putting pressure on lawmakers in Congress, she said.

“We feel it’s important to provide health care for every American worker. The health care debate should encourage a productive and constructive dialogue so that all are included in the conversation,” Ng’andu said.

Immigrants are in this fight together with everyone else, she said.

Under current federal laws, undocumented immigrants are entitled to receive only emergency health care, though some states offer assistance to cover uninsured children. Many argue it’s a growing problem that too many immigrants are forced to wait till the last minute in order to receive medical attention, winding up in emergency rooms.

In some cases immigrants resort to using stolen Social Security numbers bought on the black market in order to qualify for health programs. Others are forced to pay their medical bills in cash, which is becoming an increasing problem in an economy where even day-laborer work is hard to come by.

If communities like the immigrant population are untreated for communicable diseases, it poses an unacceptable risk to the entire area, advocates argue.

Most Latino organizations are very supportive of Obama’s administration and feel he is on the right track in addressing important issues such as the economy and health care. Most are hopeful that Obama’s policies will advance the struggle for immigrant rights much further than the previous administration ever did.

Sanchez noted that 67 percent of the Latino community voted for Obama in the 2008 presidential election, and said his administration needs to keep in mind immigration reform is a big concern for Latinos who support him.

President Obama during his recent visit to Mexico told reporters his administration plans to pursue a comprehensive overhaul of the U.S. immigration system this year, but said there is little chance of any legislative action before 2010.

The president said he expects to have draft legislation and sponsors by the end of this year, but no action until 2010 because of other pressing issues including health care reform, energy legislation and financial regulatory changes.

However Obama said there needs to be a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., and said the system must be reworked to avoid tensions with Mexico. Without it, Mexicans will keep crossing the border in dangerous ways and employers will continue to exploit workers, he said.

“We can create a system in which you have … an orderly process for people to come in, but we’re also giving an opportunity for those who are already in the U.S. to be able to achieve a pathway to citizenship so that they don’t have to live in the shadows,” said Obama.

“Am I going to be able to snap my fingers and get this done? No,” he said. “This is going to be difficult.”

plozano @ pww.org