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Immigrants and Health Care
In Defense of the Undocumented
by ALVARO HUERTA

As the son of Mexican immigrants, in the current climate of hyper-xenophobia in the U.S., I often ask myself: Where’s our Gandhi who will stage a prolonged hunger strike for the humanity of undocumented workers?  Where’s our Martin Luther King with the magnificent oratory skills capable of moving a country in the right direction for those who toil in our agricultural fields, front yards, homes and kitchens? 

These perilous times seem to bring out the worst in many Americans.  In the heat of the healthcare debate, for example, conservatives have found their favorite piñata to hit when they no longer have an argument to derail universal healthcare.  While the Republican Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina made a fool of himself by shouting “You Lie!” in the middle of President Obama’s eloquent speech in a joint session of Congress, most of the attention surrounding Wilson’s outburst centered on issues of civility and respect for the office of the president.

While Democrats and average Americans have the right to be outraged at Wilson and fellow Republicans for disrespecting Obama by yelling at him like a drunken heckler in a comedy club and continuously calling him a racist, socialist and fascist, I’ve heard virtually nothing in defense of immigrants.  Republicans and those blind followers who attend town hall meetings to rant and rave about the government “killing granny,” about Obama implementing a “socialist-type” healthcare system and, now, picking on immigrants should be ashamed of themselves. 

What about the estimated 47 million Americans in this country without health insurance who run a higher risk of getting life threatening diseases and resorting to bankruptcy when they can’t afford their medical bills?  How does the saying go?: “If a heart attack doesn’t kill you, the medical bill will.”  Where are these same Americans who rant and rave at the town hall meeting when the insurance companies “kill granny” because she lost her medical benefits due to a pre-existing medical condition?  And what about those countless immigrants who care for elderly Americans yet they themselves lack healthcare during their golden years?

This is not the time for Obama and the Democrats to reach across the political aisle to get Republicans on board with universal healthcare when conservatives have repeatedly rejected the notion that healthcare should be a right enjoyed by everyone in this country.  It seems that the Republicans are perfectly content with the free market, despite the fact that those who benefit from the market care mostly about market shares and profit margins at the expense of those who have been left to suffer without access to affordable healthcare.

And this is diffidently not the time for Obama and the Democrats to get the Republicans on board when it comes to issues of immigration vis-à-vis healthcare issues.  If we are to believe the written words of the late Senator Ted Kennedy that access to healthcare is above all a moral issue, then why should it matter if someone lacks legal status in this country?  Aren’t immigrants, with or without legal documents, also human?  Don’t they have a right to live a healthy life too, especially since Americans benefit tremendously from the sweat and labor of undocumented immigrants in this country?  Are immigrants truly free riders, to use an economist’s terminology, if they put into the system more than they receive?  Immigrants, for example, can’t file for tax returns or receive Social Security benefits, yet they pay into the system through their labor and purchase power.

Let’s stop with the hypocrisy!  Immigrants have historically contributed to making this nation the most powerful and affluent country in the world.  From building the railroads to the freeways, from making the bricks to the buildings, from growing our food to serving it, from raising the children of the affluent classes to cleaning their homes, immigrants continue to perform the most dangerous and stigmatized jobs in this country.  And what do they get in return?: “You lie!”

It’s time for both Democrats and Republicans, along with average Americans, to acknowledge, appreciate and incorporate the over 12 million undocumented workers in this country into the mainstream system so that los de abajo (those on the bottom) can also enjoy the fruits of their labor with a sense of dignity and respect that they’ve earned.

ALVARO HUERTA is a doctoral student at UC Berkeley. He can be reached at: ahuerta@berkeley.edu