HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Baby Go Home

Let's add a codicil to Emma Lazarus's plea. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to be free," is too blanket an invitation to the great unwashed. Let's add: "provided you show an officially stamped document."

This administration has added that codicil.

In the United States, citizenship comes with birth. Regardless of the status of the parents -- whether holding green cards, or holding no cards -- every baby born here is a citizen. Adults who traipse across miles of desert, or huddle in ship cargo-holds, risk deportation when they alight, if they lack the requisite forms. These adults know that years of washing laundry, mopping floors, and mowing lawns will be harsh. But they come, weighing their children's welfare over their own. The parents may never get green cards -- but their children will be citizens.

In states close to the Mexican border, an extensive, and vocal, anti-immigrant block calls these newborns, born on American soil, "anchor" babies, presumably because they anchor immigrant parents in the United States -- though the families' peripatetic lives are more rootless than anchored. The block also calls these newborns "jackpot" babies -- again, a strange description for poverty-level existences, without access to the "safety net" government programs that poor people depend on.

One safety net that illegal -- or undocumented -- families have counted on is Medicaid.

Until last July, the federal Medicaid rules stipulated that pregnant women, whether here legally or not, could have their babies in American hospitals; and Medicaid would pay. No immigration official would arrest the "undocumented," or "illegal," mother in labor. Nor would a zealous IRS official put her in jail right after delivery. Once she left the hospital, she would return to her shaky existence, looking over her shoulder for the IRS. But at least for the hospital stay, she was safe.

As for the newborn, from the start it was a citizen, hence eligible for all the government services open to citizens -- including medical coverage under Medicaid. The mother could arrange for the post-birth visits, well-baby checks, and immunizations that the medical establishment urges for all babies. An immigration official would not be waiting to arrest her in the clinic waiting room.

In this new world of getting tough on the weakest people, the administration has re-interpreted the rules. Yes, the newborns are citizens, and technically eligible for Medicaid. But first, they need to sign up -- more precisely, their parents need to get birth certificates, applications, and file the paperwork. It is a bureaucratic hassle -- one that will make it harder for some parents to get care for their children.

Medical experts decry the "reinterpretation" of the rules as harmful: some children will not get the care they need when they need it. Just as crucially, we are a nation built on immigrants; indeed, the line between legal and illegal has blurred in many of our histories. These newborns -- like millions of newborns before them -- are not leaving. Their parents risked death to embrace a grueling blend of discrimination and destitution, all so their children could be citizens. We as a nation have a vested interest in the health of these tiny new citizens. In another 40 years, one of them might take a seat in the Senate, maybe in the Oval Office. I trust that when that happens, the grown-up-anchor baby will rescind this cruel Medicaid ruling.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2006 The Progressive Populist