Immigrant/Healthcare Debate is a Red Herring

by Terry Gene Sterling on September 13, 2009

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For a few days, I’ve been watching the escalation of a national brawl over whether “illegal immigrants” will or will not be covered under a revamped healthcare system. I think this is a manufactured debate meant to distract and frighten oldsters into a tizzy.  It has Karl Rove’s fingerprints all over it.

It’s just not a substantive  issue, and I will tell you why.

Before I wonk out, though, I gotta say this: It is wrongheaded and thoughtless, and, yea, sometimes racist and hateful, to call men, women and children “illegal immigrants.” Anglo journalists use the term all the time, because it is acceptable usage in the Associated Press Stylebook. The good people at AP are unaware that calling people “illegal immigrants” hurts and outrages millions of undocumented immigrants and millions of others who care about them. The AP is also evidently not aware that Latino journos have long suggested the term “undocumented immigrant” be used instead. “Terms such as illegal alien or illegal immigrant can often be used pejoratively in common parlance and can pack a powerful emotional wallop for those on the receiving end,” the National Association of Hispanic Journalists advised in 2006. The word “undocumented” takes the sting out, is more neutral.  The word “illegal”  automatically criminalizes and separates 12 million people now living in America.

Or worse.

Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor, once said “no human being is illegal.” He had a reason for saying this, he believed calling people “illegal”  was the first of many steps that led to the Holocaust.

And he ought to know.

This said, guess what I’m calling my book, to be published by Globe Pequot Press in 2010?


That’s right. It will be so titled because the book tells true stories of hate, violence, and marginalization in the lives of undocumented people hunkering down in Ground Zero for the immigration brawl, my home town, Phoenix.  ( I speak Spanish. This book has lost nothing in the translation. The stories are raw and real. )

So, getting back to healthcare…while reporting the book I learned that half of the nation’s  12 million undocumented people are already insured. The other uninsured half, about 6 million people, only cost the nation one half of one percentage point of our total healthcare expenditures. I learned this from Paul Fronstin, director of health research at Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington, D.C. This is no radical group; members include consumer groups, insurance companies, employers, unions, and healthcare providers.

In Arizona, undocumented people are barred from getting publicly funded healthcare unless it’s a dire emergency. Once immigrants are stabilized, if they’re chronically ill with, say, cancer, they’re shipped back to their country of origin. I am not lying. Just read this story about Joe Arvizu, who was sent back to Mexico to die by Catholic nuns.

Ok, so to sum up.

1.  Half of our undocumented population already has insurance. The other half sucks up a whole one-half of one percentage point of the entire healthcare cost of the United States of America. Insuring these folks under a “public option” or any other option would not break the bank. So any argument about whether this population will or will not be insured is specious. It’s a manufactured  distraction.

2. Calling people “illegal immigrants” is wrong. Just stop.

Originally appeared in “White Woman in the Barrio”

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