It will be interesting to see what President Obama says this evening given the tension and confusion surrounding the health care debate, turned immigration debate. At the policy plenary discussion that launched the CHCI conference, on immigration reform, Sen. Bob Menendez hit the nail on the head when he said, “if we had passed immigration reform first, all these would have been moot points,” referring to Mr. Joe Wilson’s recent outburst and the anti-immigrant campaign that has taken the health care debate as their most recent tool through which to spew anti-immigrant propaganda. We have long talked about these “immigration proxy wars” and made the case that immigration reform would have left a clear playing field for the rest of the items on the domestic agenda.
Factually, what is included in the Senate health care bill in regards to immigrants is that a verification for eligibility for the exchange and other benefits would essentially be the same as those in existing law, i.e., proof of legal status, not citizenship (although even legal immigrants do have restrictions for certain programs, like Medicaid). There has been much confusion on this by the employment of the term “citizenship” verification. As you all probably know there is an ocean of LEGAL status possibilities that lie between “illegals” and “U.S. citizens.” Sadly, these differences are not always understood, as we saw this week by the absence of an acknowledgement of legal immigrants during a White House press briefing, and even on news shows like that of Dylan Ratigan, who qualified those eligible as “American citizens,” when in fact, “legal immigrants” who are not yet citizens are also eligible.
But these are all semantics. The bottom line about what has happened this week is that regardless of whether we want to be defined by race or by the issue of immigration on policy issues, we will be. Those who seek to divide the country and foster hate against a certain sociological other will not go away, so they must be preempted and defeated. As Sen. Menendez also stated at CHCI this week, “make no mistake about it, when they talk about ‘those people’, they are talking about you, about us.” And until we recognize this, we will have no progress. For example, in the case of health care, from strictly a policy standpoint (not humanitarian or liberal, etc.) what if we DID cover the “illegals”? What if we suddently acknowledged that “those people” are actually part of all of us? That their kids go to school with our kids and get sick the same as our children? That they live next door? That they work in our offices? Please read this analysis in Newsweek of what could actually be achieved if we made a conscious decision on the basis of a strategic, policy-oriented argument and covered “those people.”
The tone taken by the debate this week is – to say the least – disappointing considering that the election of President Obama was supposed to be a sign of progress in America’s attitudes towards race. But, we saw this coming. We saw it in the old woman who expressed how “afraid” she was because Obama looked likely to become president. And in the man who said he feared for his unborn children if Obama became president. We had a preview of this with the people who linked Obama to terrorism and terrorists, and in the suggestion that he was a foreigner and that he wasn’t one of “us.” All this did not suddenly disappear on November 4th last year, nor will it in a near future. No doubt, there are some who genuinely disagree with some government policies, the problem is that in light of the tone taken by the debate right now, it is hard to know who is who. Those who genuinely do disagree with the president should discuss their opinions based on policy, not on codes that appear to carry racist implications. But there is certainly something ugly going on. And that needs to be discussed – and most importantly, confronted. And the first major stand we can take on this front is to pass comprehensive immigration reform and take much of the air our of this balloon of hate.
I close by highlighting that these negative attitudes do not discriminate on the basis of party – hate and fear mongerers are both Democrat and Republican. On that note, I congratulate Sen. Judd Gregg who called this debate of immigration in the context of health care what it is – a “sideshow.” And acknowledged that doctors will treat whoever walks into an emergency room, regardless of legal status (which, by the way, taxpayers are paying for – and thanks to not including “illegals” in reform, will continue to pay for).