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Health Care for Illegal Immigrants in USA Remains Point of Contention

As the debate about immigration reform heats up in the United States, immigrant groups are planning a one-day national boycott today to protest a proposed immigration reform law that they say is overly restrictive. One area of contention is health care. Some members of the House of Representatives are pushing a bill that would make it illegal to provide social services -- including medical care -- to undocumented immigrants. But as VOA's Brian Padden reports, denying illegal immigrants health care could put the rest of society at risk.

Hamid Yogoub has recently come to the United States from war-torn Sudan. He says he is eager to begin a new life. "I want to work here, and stay here, and get a job here."

As part of the resettlement process for sanctioned refugees he is receiving a complete health examination. Physician Saba Kulathungan says all new immigrants should get such an exam, regardless of their legal status.

"I'm not justifying their entry," says Dr. Kulathungan, "but once they are here they should be given permission to be checked and treated."

But an immigration reform bill being considered in the U.S. Congress would make it a crime to provide health care or other social services to illegal immigrants.

Congressman Tom Tancredo of the western state of Colorado has been an outspoken proponent of making illegal immigration a criminal offense.

"Denying social services to them is something you have to do to stop the magnet effect that all of these combined things have, the health care, free schooling. This is all a magnet that draws people into this country and I'm trying to demagnetize it."

But Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the Public Health Commissioner for the city of Baltimore, says denying care to a patient violates a physician's oath, and is also bad public policy.

"If it's a patient with tuberculosis who’s afraid to come to the public health clinic because they are afraid of being deported and then passes on tuberculosis to 100 people downtown, you know, we all lose because of that," notes Dr. Sharfstein.

While Congressman Tancredo says provisions would be made to allow for emergency care, Dr. Sharfstein and many other public health officials remain skeptical. They caution legislators that any attempt to reform immigration should not put the public's health at risk.