Spreading Pain

It is hard to empathize with an out-of-work, $80,000-a-year techie tossed out on the manicured lawns of his half-million-dollar estate in New Jersey


is poised to drop nearly 30,000 legal permanent residents from its nationally
touted three-year-old health care plan. The new state budget eliminates
Commonwealth Care — the subsidized health insurance program for low-income residents
— coverage for immigrants who have been in the country for less than five years
to shave nearly $130 million off the state’s $5 billion budget deficit.

Gov. Deval Patrick has pushed back, so the state is
exploring a substantially curtailed option, which would offer limited
preventive and emergency care to those dropped from the program, at roughly
half the cost. As we went to press, prospects for the limited coverage plan
were still up in the air. But even if a compromise program survives, unless economic
conditions improve next year, health care coverage for immigrants will likely
be gutted over time.

As the nation’s economy sinks and tax receipts shrivel from California
to New York, mounting state and
federal deficits are straining public programs, even as demand for services
soars. Enrollment in Massachusetts’s
Commonwealth Care swelled in recent months as unemployment rose, forcing tens
of thousands of state residents to turn to the public health care plan. The
economic pressures nationwide will only mount over the next several months.

The Massachusetts
rollback is modeled after the 1996 federal welfare reform act, which barred
Medicaid and some other welfare benefits to permanent residents during the
first five years of their U.S.
residency. However, it is only the first salvo in a fierce public debate that
will increasingly entangle legal and illegal immigration.

As legislators in other states search for cost cuts,
programs for immigrants, both legal and undocumented, will be among the first
on the chopping block. And should the recession linger past this year, it is
not only recent permanent residents who will discover themselves at risk. In California,
activists are already pushing a ballot initiative challenging the U.S.
citizenship of children of illegal aliens, even though the 14th Amendment
states unequivocally: “All persons born or naturalized in the United
States, and subject to the jurisdiction
thereof, are citizens of the United States
and the State wherein they reside.” Ballot proponents contend that as illegal
aliens are not “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States, their
children legally are not U.S.
citizens. Not surprisingly, the ballot initiative is dressed in a populist
welfare reform measure.

The economically successful community of Indian Americans,
comprised predominantly of professionals, has, for the most part, been detached
from the plight of more economically vulnerable immigrant communities,
especially undocumented aliens. Most Indian professionals reserve their distress
and ire for the painful delays, often of as lengthy as five years, which green
card spouses must endure.


This single-minded focus on narrow, self-serving immigrant
concerns is neither wise, nor effective. All immigrant groups are vulnerable to
the vagaries of the economic winds, as the tens of thousands of Indians with
six figure incomes who have joined the unemployment rolls in recent months are
rudely discovering.

The immigration debate flares every so often in America
during economic downturns. The anti-immigrant fervor never reached a head
during the past several decades only because the flows of economic cycles
dissipated its building momentum, sometimes just in the nick of time. This
recession, however, will likely linger longer, or even should the economy turn,
it may provide only a temporary reprieve.

We would be wise to embrace the most vulnerable in our
midst. It is hard to empathize with an out-of-work, $80,000-a-year techie
tossed out on the manicured lawns of his half-million-dollar estate in New
Jersey, who was callously indifferent to the plight
of the 62-year-old triple-bypass patient just stripped of her heath coverage.


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