As Congress heads home for August recess, advocates across the country are gearing up for a fight to pressure lawmakers back in their home states and communities to support comprehensive immigration reform that grants a path to citizenship for aspiring Americans with full and fair access to critical safety net programs and affordable health care.
This fight has high stakes for millions of women and families already working, paying taxes, and contributing to our communities who want to do right by the law and step out of the shadows, where a patchwork of harmful policies fueled by stereotypes and fear-mongering have led to wide disparities in health outcomes for women and children.
For example, while incidence and mortality rates for cervical cancer have been on the decline for U.S. born women, these rates have risen for immigrants because of the disparity in screening rates–only 61 percent of foreign-born women residing in the U.S. for less than a decade have received a Pap smear in the past three years compared to 83 percent of women born here.
Critics will have you believe that the status quo for immigrants and access to important services like health care is already too generous.
They’ll also tell you that the immigration bill passed by the Senate earlier this summer is too liberal and insufficiently punitive to the aspiring Americans.
These critics are not only wrong and willfully ignorant of current law and reality facing millions, but are pushing dangerous proposals that would sentence immigrant women to a lifetime without health care including screenings and preventive services that detect treatable diseases like cervical cancer before it’s too late.
The immigration reform bill, as passed by the Senate, includes provisions that require currently undocumented individuals to wait 15 years before being able access to affordable health care, including Medicaid (the main source of coverage for low-income individuals in America). Meanwhile, they’re also barred from receiving valuable tax credits and subsidies that help them afford quality private health insurance options under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).
Since purchasing this coverage at full cost without any subsidies is out of the question for many families, and since safety net programs like Medicaid aren’t an option, many will be forced to go without coverage and face high out-of-pocket costs for basic services and treatments. All the while, aspiring Americans who must wait these 15 years will be required to work and pay taxes towards the programs they themselves will be barred from accessing.
Talk about un-American.
Basic taxpayer fairness doesn’t apply to these women and families who already pay taxes and disproportionately contribute to the Medicare Trust Fund.
During committee debate of the immigration bill, stalwart champion for women’s rights and immigrant rights Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii offered a series of commonsense amendments that would have allowed aspiring Americans the opportunity to access the programs their taxes were contributing towards.
She couldn’t have summed it up better when she said: “Imagine if you buy homeowner’s insurance, but the policy won’t cover your house if it catches fire until 13 years after you start paying premiums. That would obviously not be fair. But that is exactly the situation in which people on the pathway to citizenship will find themselves because of restrictions in the senate immigration bill.”
Unfortunately, Sen. Hirono’s proposal was not given a chance, and the Senate immigration bill as it stands continues to bar access to safety net programs for immigrant women and families.
Not only is this approach counter to basic human rights by denying access to health care, it’s also poor public policy.
As any budget or health policy expert will tell you, denying access to lower-cost preventive care including screenings does not yield long- term savings to private and public payers of health care.
In fact, overall costs rise when preventable or treatable diseases including diabetes and other chronic conditions are not addressed or intervened early enough and the only place available to turn for needed health care is the emergency room. Investing in basic health care is good fiscal policy–as acknowledged and reflected in the Affordable Care Act as we move towards a system of greater health coverage for all Americans–except immigrants.
A two-tiered health system is bad for the health of our communities and bad budget policy that America and aspiring Americans can’t afford.
This fight is personal.
As I wrote in my hometown paper, I am testament to the commitment millions of immigrant women have to America.
When I was undocumented, affording basic health care was a challenge. Yearly check-ups, physicals, and getting care when I was sick required sacrifices elsewhere so that I could afford the costly out-of-pocket expenses that are faced when access to affordable coverage isn’t an option.
I was lucky to have a strong network of family and friends who helped me succeed.
Many other vulnerable Latina women and families aren’t so lucky, and they won’t get the care that can detect cancer or ensure their reproductive health. That’s unconscionable.
Fifteen years can literally make the difference between life and death, between succeeding in society and falling through the cracks.
Take a minute and tell Congress in the coming days and weeks: fifteen years is too long to wait.
Sign the petition and stand for taxpayer fairness and human rights for aspiring American women and families.
- Xenia Ruiz, Advisory Council Director
Editor’s Note: WIN is a sponsor of the 4th annual Latina Week of Action for Reproductive Justice, “#15years is Too Long to Wait: Health and Justice for Immigrant Women Now.”