Anti-immigration activists see opportunity in health care debate

When President Obama showed up for a town hall meeting in New Hampshire on Tuesday, he heard more than just protests against health care.

“We don’t need illegals,” yelled a white-bearded protester into his megaphone outside the high school auditorium in Portsmouth, caught on video here. “Send ‘em all back. Send ‘em back with a bullet in the head the second time.”

<em>"Send 'em back with a bullet in the head!" An anti-immigrant anti-health reform protester in New Hampshire.</em>
Send them back with a bullet in the head! An anti-immigrant anti-health reform protester in New Hampshire.

If the threat of violence weren’t clear enough, the man goes on to say: “Read what Jefferson said about the Tree of Liberty — it’s coming, baby.” Thomas Jefferson’s actual quote was “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

As the heat ratchets up on health reform, anti-immigrant activists are using the issue to whip up fear and anger toward immigrants, portraying them as a drain on any taxpayer-supported U.S. health care system. Angry questions about illegal immigrants getting health care at town hall meetings across the country have put many lawmakers on the defensive.

At his town hall meeting in Pennsylvania, for example, Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter had to assure protesters that illegal immigrants would not be covered. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has gone out of her way to make that point as well. Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) faced similar shouted questions at his town hall forum on Wednesday, and repeatedly emphasized that illegal immigrants are not covered by the House bill. President Obama has also made the point, although it’s not clear that the anti-reform activists have heard it.

The protesters are spurred on in large part by immigration restrictionist groups who are using the health care debate to spread fears about immigrants. The restrictionist group Numbers USA, for example, has been posting video interviews online with unnamed “experts” warning that emergency rooms are overwhelmed by both legal and illegal immigrants, and that subsidized health care won’t be available for other low-income Americans because immigrants will be using it all up.

The Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, meanwhile, a non-profit research organization that says it’s “animated by a pro-immigrant, low-immigration vision,” is sponsoring a panel discussion next week in Washington called The Elephant In the Room: Immigration’s Impact on Health Care Reform. Steven Camarota of the center writes on the group’s web site that “one out of three people in the U.S. without health insurance is an immigrant (legal or illegal) or the U.S.-born child (under 18) of an immigrant,” and claims that immigrants and their children “account for one-fourth of those on Medicaid.” Yet “the enormous impact of immigration, both legal and illegal, on the health care system has generally not been acknowledged in the current debate.”

Immigrants’ advocates vehemently dispute the CIS statistics, and argue that immigrants — particularly illegal immigrants — are actually far less likely to use even emergency health services than American-born U.S. citizens are.

“We’re really concerned about what the anti-immigration community is doing to try and stop health care reform from moving forward,” said Jennifer Ng’andu, Deputy Director of the Health Policy Project at the National Council of La Raza. “We see it as those communities trying to stir the pot and create controversy. These are not folks who come to the table with solutions. They’re not looking to talk about a health care reform plan. They just assume that by creating anxiety about immigrants, that they’ll stop this debate.”

The protests have put lawmakers on the defensive. At town hall meetings focused on the health care debate, they’ve repeatedly been questioned about whether they support providing health care for illegal immigrants. Pelosi, Specter and Obama have all emphasized that illegal immigrants would not be covered under the current health care proposals.

The issue has gotten so heated that even the Congressional Hispanic Caucus issued a statement supporting health coverage only for “legal, law abiding” immigrants who pay their “fair share” for health care.

Under federal law, illegal immigrants are entitled to receive only emergency health care, although some states offer assistance to uninsured children. But conservative groups such as CIS and the Heritage Foundation complain that even emergency care for illegal immigrants is a big problem.

Immigrants’ advocates deny that that immigrants, legal or illegal, are driving up the costs of the health care system or disproportionately relying on government health services. And they point to a stack of studies showing that, on the contrary, immigrants actually use fewer health services than do American-born citizens.

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