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Let me be candid: health care reform has struck a personal chord. On October 4th, my aunt Margarita died of pneumonia and cancer. After receiving that dreaded call from my sister saying Margarita only had hours to live, I caught the first flight to Rhode Island. On the flight, I could not help but put this in the context of the broader health reform debate.

I shuddered at the thought that had Margarita been in the United States for fewer than five years, she would not have gotten the health care she needed in her final days. Although I am grateful for the care that my aunt received, my heart sinks at the realization that the nation’s 600,000 low-income legal immigrants will continue to wait for too long for affordable health care unless we act today.

Across the country, we are watching health care negotiations in Washington with the hope that Congress will do the right thing and reform a broken system that lets too many Americans fall through the cracks. Under the current proposals, Congress inexplicably restricts low-income legal immigrants from the federal Medicaid and Medicare programs, which provide meaningful access to quality, affordable health care for millions of Americans.

This is a restriction we cannot accept. By keeping legal immigrants out of federal programs, Congress will create a fundamentally unfair and unnecessarily exclusionary health care system. Like Margarita, legal immigrants must overcome many hurdles to immigrate to the United States, under our complex and outdated immigration system. We must create the opportunity for these immigrants to integrate into American society without barriers. Having equal access to affordable health care is one necessary component.

This is personal not just for me but also for everyone who has seen a loved one endure a serious illness. They, too, can attest to the fact that five years is too long for anyone to wait for treatment. Destructive illnesses like cancer will not wait for federal policy to catch up to reality, and leaves many immigrants and their loved ones with inadequate medical care and crippling medical bills. Like other Americans, immigrants facing life and death choices for themselves and their families, as well as medical bankruptcy, wonder what happened to the American dream.

The five-year waiting period for legal immigrants to access affordable health care is not only unfair; it is also widely perceived as poor public health policy: just ask the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Hospital Association, or any of the countless experts in the medical field who have argued that such restrictions are neither cost-efficient nor effective. Despite all this evidence to the contrary, Congress has yet to eliminate this discriminatory and costly restriction.

Although polls show that the American public supports a repeal of this waiting period, Congress still hasn’t gotten the message. Many in Congress will not stand up for doing what’s right for immigrants without a boisterous public backing, for fear of backlash against them by a small but vocal anti-immigrant minority. It is our duty to remind the people elected to represent us that we expect them to enact a health care system that ensures fair and equal access for our diverse communities.

Earlier this year, President Obama and Congress heard from all of us and determined that five years was indeed too long for lawfully residing immigrant children and pregnant women to wait for access to affordable care. It is now time to do the same for their families.

Anti-immigrant voices should not keep Congress from forgetting what’s really at stake: achieving a meaningful health reform for all Americans. It makes no sense that Margarita’s health care would have depended on when she entered the United States. She and all other legal immigrants comprise a vital economic and social component of our society and they should be treated equally. Just as they did in January, when they voted to remove the waiting period for children and pregnant women, let’s remind Congress that immigrants are a part of the fabric of our society, and by imposing nonsensical limits on their access to health care we go against the very character of our country.

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For 30 years, the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) has advocated for the rights of low-income immigrants and their families. One of NILC’s priorities is to increase immigrants’ access to quality and affordable health care by providing extensive policy analysis and advocacy. Marielena Hincapié is Executive Director of NILC.

Cross posted at New American Media.


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