Bioethics Forum Essay

Health Care for Undocumented Immigrants: A Family Issue

In a presidential campaign riven with disagreement about nearly everything to do with health care, there is a notable area of bipartisan accord: both parties support improving children’s health and access to health care.

But the reality is more complex, particularly when it concerns the American-born children of undocumented immigrants.  A commentary just posted on the Center’s Undocumented Patients Web site lays out the problem.

The government’s policy not to provide undocumented residents with access to health care undermines the goal of helping children become and stay healthy, explains Michael Gusmano, the author of the commentary and Hastings Center scholar who is co-director of a Hastings project on undocumented patients.

About 37 percent of adult undocumented immigrants have children who are U.S. citizens. There are at least 4 million of these children.  As citizens, they may be eligible for Medicaid, CHIP, and other government health programs, but research suggests that they are much more likely than other U.S.-born children to be uninsured and to go without needed care.

Why? Their undocumented parents may fear deportation or, even if they do not fear immediate deportation, they may fear that applying for public health insurance will make it impossible for them to obtain citizenship or legal status.

While many people argue that it is inappropriate to use public funds to provide health care for undocumented patients when so many American citizens are uninsured, Gusmano says that we must consider the implications for their families. “If we believe that justice requires offering all children an equal opportunity to live a healthy productive life, it is more difficult to justify denying care to their parents.”

For more information, visit The Hastings Center’s Undocumented Patients Web site.

Susan Gilbert is the editor of Bioethics Forum.

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