The line in the President’s speech that made Congressman Joe Wilson shout "You lie!" was an assertion that illegal immigrants would not be covered by the health care reform proposals making their way through Congress. The President was correct and the Congressman was wrong: There is explicit language in the bill guaranteeing that it will not cover those who are in this country illegally. But, they are both wrong on the policy. Health care reform should include undocumented workers and their families.
Cong. Wilson based his claim on the fact that Congress turned down a Republican-sponsored amendment that would have required health providers to demand proof from their clients that they were in the country legally. Apart from the Orwellian aspect of the proposal to turn health care providers into law enforcement officials, a similar effort was already tried and failed with Medicaid. It turns out that very few undocumented workers access the nation’s health care system because they are afraid their status will be discovered. The Medicaid provision had the unintended consequence of denying coverage to U.S. citizens who lack proper identification. I know it may seem bizarre to middle class America that there are some people who do not have driver’s licenses, but in the real world of urban poverty, there are many such people. So, the Democrats were right to turn back the GOP amendment.
I do not fault the Democrats in Congress or the President for failing to include undocumented workers in the health care reform effort. The fact is that such an inclusion would doom the reform effort politically, which doesn’t do anything to advance the cause of health care or the cause of immigrants. The Democrats should, however, recommit to passing comprehensive immigration reform by the end of the year. I know that this will require another tough vote for some Blue Dog Dems, but the measure will enjoy some bipartisan support so the congressional leadership might be able to give Sen. Nelson and others a pass.
The U.S. Bishops have called for immigrants, legal or otherwise, to be included in the health care reform effort. Theirs is a lonely voice on this issue, as it is on the issue of abortion. The fact that their voice will not be effective in the health care for immigrants debate should not cause them, or their flock, to become angry or frustrated. As von Balthasar insisted, "success is not a name of God and is, therefore, not a Gospel category." We are called to defend the immigrant, the poor, the unborn, and all whom society marginalizes, in season and out of season.
Many bemoan the fact that the political culture has coarsened and they point to Cong. Wilson’s heckling the President in the House chamber. But, both the heckler and the heckled provide evidence of a far more consequential coarsening of our political culture. Many, especially on the right, demonize immigrants, and do so in a nation built by immigrants. And even the most powerful person in the world must pay political tribute to that demonization by assuring the nation that fellow human beings will not be able to get basic health care for themselves and their children. The bishops may be lonely in calling for immigrants to be covered, but they are being faithful to the Gospel.