- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2000

Our classrooms are filled with children who are citizens, children from families who have been in the United States for decades, and children who are recent, legal immigrants. All of these children study together and play together, and often speak the same language.

But if Congress doesn't act soon, come cold and flu season it may be easy to pick the legal immigrant children out of a crowd. Maybe they'll be coughing more than most kids. They may look tired, or like they need a tissue and a hug. Maybe they'll miss school too often to catch up.

By virtue of having arrived in this country after Aug. 22, 1996, these children are not eligible for Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the government's health insurance programs for the poor and for working families.

That means many of these children will not get the prescription cough syrup, antibiotics and other expensive treatments that can mean the difference between a minor illness and one that is life-threatening.

The 1996 welfare reform law cut off many government services for legal immigrants. Gradually, however, Congress has taken steps away from this unfortunate provision. First, we restored disability payments (SSI); then we gave states the option of restoring Medicaid or CHIP to pregnant women and legal immigrant children who arrived in this country before the law went into effect. But more needs to be done.

New census data show the number of Americans without health insurance fell from 44.3 million to 42.6 million in 1999. This is the first decline since 1987, and this is good news.

Still, the proportion of immigrant children who are uninsured remains extremely high. A new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that in the last year, nearly half of low-income immigrant children in America had no health insurance coverage.

The Immigrant Children's Health Improvement Act, backed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in both houses of Congress, would give states the option of restoring Medicaid and CHIP to legal immigrant pregnant women and children. Despite widespread support, this common-sense, humane and fiscally responsible legislation is in grave danger of being left behind as Congress hurries to wrap up its final business and head home to campaign.

Some in Congress oppose the provision on the grounds that the welfare reform law removed legal immigrants from the health rolls for a reason.

There was reason money. By limiting the number of people eligible for Medicaid and CHIP, the federal government was able to save billions of dollars. This provision had nothing to do with the overall, worthy goals of welfare reform encouraging self-reliance and self-sufficiency and discouraging single parenthood. There is also no evidence that legal immigrants come to the United States for health benefits. In fact, in the last decade, immigrants have been moving south from high-benefit states like California and New York to low-benefit states like North Carolina and Virginia. There is also no denying that the money to cover this population of approximately 200,000 per year is available if we choose to use it this way.

The truth is, covering kids and pregnant women is not only humane. It is fiscally responsible. Struggling hospitals, most of them public, bear the brunt of providing uncompensated emergency room care for children without health insurance whose families can't afford to pay. Taxpayers may eventually wind up paying the health care costs of citizen children born prematurely or sick because their legal immigrant mothers could not get prenatal care.

American citizens may also reap unexpected benefits if all legal immigrant children get covered. Giving states the option to provide health insurance coverage to newly arrived legal immigrant children would help states in their efforts to enroll more low-income children who are already eligible for help but are unaware. States could simplify their child application and enrollment procedures by dispensing with complex immigrant eligibility determinations.

These eligibility determinations are so complex because they are nonsensical. They rely on a seemingly magical cut-off date and the whim of some who seem to forget that we are a nation of immigrants.

Bob Graham, a Democrat, is Florida's senior U.S. senator. Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart represents Florida's 21st District.

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