Immigration and Health Care Costs

Impressions from a cross-country road trip dominates this
Physician Executive post from 2008. The cultural diversity of the country made a big impression on me. It is ironic that while we argue today about Immigration Reform, the pressure from immigration has been dissipated by new economic realities. Net migration from Mexico is now negative. I suspect it is only a matter of time before xenophobia rears its ugly head again in the healthcare debates.


In my drive across the country, I encountered many languages. Coming from a polyglot city like DC, it is easy to be jaded about the American heartland and consider fairly white-bread. This is why it struck me that I encountered so many cultures along the way. I could have said that there were more non-English culture Americans along the way, but then I would be grandstanding.

I did run into a family of Greeks from Turkey along the way, an almost vanished cultural subgroup. Mostly I found myself conversing in my broken Spanish. First was a family from Cuba and we met in the St. Louis arch. Of course the dominant group was Mexican-American, who manned convenience stores, restaurants and hotels the entire length of the country, even in the most white bread areas. I even saw a young black man cleaning a hotel room, a truly unaccustomed site in this country over the last decade, but it was at a National Park, where reasonably affluent young adults work hard in exchange for the adventure of their lives.

All these impressions came on the heels of a radio talking-head saying something to the effect that the trouble with this country was the extent of illegal immigration. He was saying that people seemed to think it was OK to break the law or to simply ignore it in such unprecedented numbers.

So, that would mean that all laws must be vigorously enforced at all times. I’m glad this guy isn’t in charge of the highway administration; I would have been in trouble with speeding especially in some abandoned stretches of road in the West. But the level of policing required to eliminate all speeding in the country would be onerous, certainly it would be cost-prohibitive. Before the ACLU lost its way when the real issues gradually disappeared, they would have gently reminded us that not all laws are meant to be enforced severely given the risk that we could begin to look like a police state; a deplorable condition to be avoided at all costs. Indeed the fathers of this country did proclaim their liberty, or their lives!

If a law requires such severe and absurd efforts like building a wall across a natural resource like the Rio Grande, then I would consider the law worthy of re-evaluation. A law of the land is not a natural law. It is not the Law of Evolution, it is not a Law of God handed down to Moses, or elucidated by Mohammed or revealed by Christ. This country’s laws reflect intelligent people’s best bet on how to secure the greater good.

Our immigration laws are not only ineffectual; they are economically and socially counter-productive.

I caught a CSPAN rerun of Chris Matthews plugging his new book and he suggested that he had a problem with providing government documents to people who were not supposed to be here, i.e. making someone look like they had a status or legitimacy they did not have. That, I can understand. His position reflects serious thinking about how to approach the problem of rapid, undocumented immigration. But stopping immigration altogether is a boneheaded concept. Stopping illegal immigration is unlikely, given the strength of the forces behind migration. In fact, it is the complexity of human migration decisions that makes draconian immigration enforcement so stupid.

It is also economically counter-productive since I am convinced that labor is an asset for any country and does not represent a net burden in services. Some services relate to infrastructure that already exists and incremental increases are not necessarily harmful. Other services such as health care have raised some people’s hackles.

Those people who are up in arms over health care costs to immigrants need to come off it! Immigrants, especially illegals are mostly young, fit and hard-working. They do not come with the express purpose of seeking free health care for themselves or their families, although that may play into their needs after several years if their parents fall ill. There are numerous indications that immigrants, and especially illegals, use less health care and are more likely to pay for it than America’s own native poor. (By native, I mean born in the USA.)

The major burden in most areas is a fertility rate that approaches third world levels, but we’re too busy preaching the ineffectual dogma of abstinence to do anything about it (but that’s another post.) If anyone bothered to do a detailed economic accounting of the costs and benefits, I suspect it would quickly become clear that even illegal immigration is of net economic benefit to this country. Issues related to national security are just more fear-mongering to which I have become inured.

In construction and agriculture alone, this work force represents the ultimate in flexible, mobile work force to do labor of a kind no American would accept to do for any wage. To get native born-American to take up the back-breaking toil which is manual farm labor, we would all be looking at $8 tomatoes and a $20 head of cabbage.

If the problem is that there are too many immigrants, then I say it is the same old xenophobia that has affected people since time immemorial; a mean-spirited, deeply-rooted human fear of all that is unfamiliar. If the problem is only that such immigration is illegal, then I say change the laws. They are too impractical and poorly thought out for my liking. There are better and more intelligent ways to deal with a big incentive for economic migration from our southern neighbors.

The fear of health care costs related to immigration is just one more ideological bone from the political demagogues.