Immigrants and Welfare Services

immgnts_umc_costsOne of the problems about holding an honest debate about immigration reform in the United States is the myriad of misconceptions about what immigrants take from US society. Usually the debate is hijacked by unproven allegations that undocumented immigrants take more than they contribute to society. One of the biggest examples propped up by anti-immigrant advocates is the notion that individuals from Mexico come across the border to have their babies at US public hospitals.

This argument centers on two primary issues. The first is that the baby serves as an anchor for future immigration into the United States. The second argument centers on the notion that citizens of Mexico are unfairly taking advantage of the welfare system in the United States by having their babies at the local public hospital. Today, I am going to focus on the latter notion, Mexican citizens misusing US taxpayer resources.

The argument is simple; immigrants using University Medical Center for having their babies delivered unfairly costs the taxpayers of the community by forcing them to support foreign citizens with their taxes. This misleading notion has been perpetuated for political purposes for as long as I can remember.

This erroneous notion is brought out when it comes time to set the property tax rate or when the discussion about immigration reform rises on the public agenda. However, the fact is that Mexican citizens normally pay their way at UMC. Unfortunately, because of political special interests, trying to understand the actual breakup between citizen and non-citizen is difficult because since 1986 University Medical Center does not establish the citizenship of the patient that receives the services from the hospital.

A lawsuit filed by the El Paso Legal Assistance Society in March 1986, on behalf of Hispanic residents who had been refused service by the hospital because they could not provide proof of citizenship, forced the hospital to suspend asking if the patient was a citizen, or not. Pat O’Rourke, then County Judge, sent the federal government a bill for $7.5 million arguing that the federal government was responsible for immigration.

However, the El Paso Legal Assistance Society argued that it had filed the lawsuit on behalf of “people who’ve established legal residence” in El Paso, according to its executive director Cathy Barnes. County officials continually argued that it was relatively easy for anyone to establish “residence” in the city, including undocumented immigrants. The hospital district, for its part, argued that of the patients it served, 20% were undocumented immigrants. The problem is that no one can prove the veracity of the 20% because there are no reliable records to back up that figure.

However, the notion that undocumented immigrants are an undue burden on the tax base is allowed to remain unchallenged even though anecdotal information is available. The 1986 debate in El Paso County centered on the notion that 30% of the public hospital’s patients were maternity patients, the insinuation being that they were Mexican citizens giving birth.

That notion largely remains in the public consciousness today.

KVIA’s ABC-7 Listens published a report on September 16, 2014 by Stephanie Valle as a response to viewers questioning the “use of taxpayer money when it comes to the care of those who don’t pay taxes…in particular, those who come from Mexico”.

Valles quoted Michael Nuñez, UMC’s chief financial officer. Nuñez stated that the hospital does not “accept charity cases from Mexico”, adding that the “hospital does accept Mexicans’ cash”. Nuñez, further elaborated that the hospital recoups “almost 100% of the cost when it comes to babies born from across the border because they do pay cash”.

Nuñez further added that the “real financial burden is not originating from across the border”. Stephanie Valles quotes Nuñez:

One out of three people in El Paso County do not have health insurance and do have a need and come to our hospital”, adding “close to $90 million (of uncompensated costs in FY 2013) just came from El Paso County residents”.

Clearly, the hospital’s financial officer has articulated that Mexican citizens delivering babies at the hospital is not the problem, but rather a public agenda that has nothing to do with immigration reform. As a matter of fact, patients paying cash for services at the hospital are lucrative for the taxpayers of the community because the hospital does not have to wait to collect the funds or deal with governmental cutbacks.

Although other anecdotal evidence continually suggests that Mexican citizens do not account for the economic distress of El Paso the notion is allowed to remain in the public consciousness for political expediency.

This is why it is difficult to have a valid debate about immigration reform because too many unsubstantiated notions are allowed to be perpetuated in the public consciousness, however erroneous they are.