Recently, I have been very involved in the issue of immigrant justice and bringing forward the stories of thousands of undocumented immigrants in this country who often do not have a say in discussions about human rights. We often speak about how in a first-world country like America, we have more access to medicine and other rights than in many other parts of the world; but for undocumented people this is not always the case. In discussions of healthcare coverage in this country, despite the well-known privatized system of medical care, it is always assumed that everyone has some right to be covered because if they cannot afford private insurance they are eligible for Medicaid. Yet undocumented immigrants are not.
At a recent panel about this issue, I heard a statement that disturbed me: A son of an immigrant mother had said that the first time his mother was eligible for Medicaid was when she was pregnant with him. Because she was holding the life of a future American citizen, she became eligible to receive the healthcare benefits that this country offers. Although this law does not surprise me, I am still struck by the distinction that is made between a human with American citizenship and a human without American citizenship, and how this status determines one’s right to basic healthcare. If health is a universal human right, how come a social security number, or lack there of, determines one’s access it?
With the enforcement of anti-immigrant legislation in 2010, Nebraska passed a law that prevented undocumented women from receiving prenatal services through Medicaid programs in an effort to prevent illegal immigrants from receiving public benefits. However, this notion contradicted Nebraska’s pro-life sentiment, which encouraged covering all prenatal costs of women for the benefit of the unborn child who would in-fact be born an American citizen. This led to a controversial discussion of the right of unborn children vs. born children to healthcare. So because the child would eventually be born American, there was already discussions over the unborn child’s right to health. However, there was no discourse over the mother’s right to health, simply because she was not American? Is she not human too?
So what makes a person eligible for the right to health? Is it where they are born? Is it what legal status they have? Do they even hold this right before they are born? When we discuss access to medicine on a global scale we see clear barriers in developing countries’ accessibility to medicines and health care that have to do with trade laws, pricing, lack of infrastructure, and other factors. But the gaps in access to medicine within the US population arise from completely different barriers that prevent certain people from their right to health even when adequate medicine and care reside just around the corner.