Ensuring responsible, humane treatment of undocumented immigrants, whether they entered this country illegally or as refugees, is a controversial issue, especially as the campaigns for 2020 elections heat up. Several candidates, including some running for president, have promised or advocated for guaranteeing access to health care for everyone, including illegal residents.
Some want to include undocumented immigrants in proposed universal healthcare coverage, even some plans that would be paid completely by taxpayers. While we believe such plans merely cloak patient costs that Americans still pay through taxation, there should be no question that everyone should be able to seek medical care that can improve or even save lives.
Everyone who needs health care, whether it be critical or routine, should have the confidence that they can get it without fear that immigration authorities will be called. Human rights advocates say even many legal U.S. residents avoid seeking non-emergency care because they fear questions about their immigration status. Some medical centers have been accused of dressing their security guards in uniforms similar to those used by the Border Patrol in order to scare people away.
It’s unlikely that such a practice is widespread, since those institutions’ primary purpose is to help people and save lives. But perceptions can be as strong as reality in deterring prospective patients who could let their conditions to get worse, or allow untreated infectious diseases to spread.
To that end, Congress should consider enacting laws or resolutions that would ensure medical professionals can confidently treat all patients without regard to their immigration status.
Some of those protections already exist. Patients and those who treat them have general First Amendment protections to not say anything, in most cases. Laws do require medical institutions to notify authorities if someone appears seeking treatment for injuries caused by guns, knives or other weapons.
In addition, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act protects patients from having certain information revealed about them, including name, address and other personal data. In fact, in some cases notifying authorities about the presence of an undocumented patient could violate HIPPA privacy protections. According to the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, this could protect patients and health care providers in the event an employee with strong opinions on the subject chooses to call immigration authorities on his own.
But lawmakers would provide a great service by codifying and ensuring those protections, and getting the word out that health care is one area where immigration status doesn’t apply.
Helping people who need it and protecting public health and safety are too important to be affected by any policies, including immigration, that would keep people from seeking care. Any step to erase public fears of seeking that care would be welcome.