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Anchors away

Immigration | The debate over birthright citizenship hits hardest on the hospital ward

Issue: "Broken beyond repair?," Sept. 25, 2010

TUCSON, Ariz.-The evening after I gave birth to my daughter at Tucson Medical Center (TMC), a hospital administrator stopped by our post-delivery room and presented my husband with a bill for about $1,200-the amount we owed after our insurance deductible had been met but before we'd reached our annual maximum out-of-pocket. If we could pay in full that day, the hospital would knock 10 percent off the charge.

Less than half of the women who give birth at TMC receive such a visit. That's because Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), the state's public health program, offers free maternity coverage to women in low and lower-middle income classes as well as covering all labor and delivery charges for women in the country illegally. The hospital declined to say what portion of their AHCCCS-covered births involve illegal immigrants but revealed to the Arizona Daily Star in 2007 that around 20 percent of their deliveries are to noncitizen mothers. Considering that illegal immigrants make up between 7 percent and 8 percent of Arizona's total population-and that men in that group significantly out­number women-that accounts for a surprisingly high number. However, it is less surprising once another group of foreign-born mothers who are neither poor nor undocumented are factored into the picture.

Pregnant Mexican women with proper visas who can afford to pay cash for their deliveries are also crossing the border to give birth at TMC. The hospital is one of a few nationwide capitalizing on the cutting-edge practice of birth tourism, targeting specialized maternity packages to Mexican citizens who want to have their babies on U.S. soil.

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Though TMC does not specifically advertise U.S. citizenship as a reason for delivering at its hospital, immigration experts say it has always been the main draw for noncitizens-both legal and illegal-who come to the United States to give birth. In a 2009 AP story detailing TMC's birth packages, the Mexican consul general in Tucson, Juan Manuel Calderon Jaimes, found nothing concerning about the practice and said it was nothing new: "Many families of means in Sonora [Mexico] send their wives here to give birth because they have the resources to pay for the services."

But a growing number of U.S. residents are worried about what's happening at hospitals like TMC and how it affects the future of the country. Their alarm is driving the recent push to amend or reinterpret the Constitution so that United States citizenship is no longer automatically conferred upon a person simply because he or she is born here.

According to a recently released study by the Pew Hispanic Center, 37 percent of illegal immigrants in the United States are parents of a citizen child. Even without a citizen in the household, they pose significant costs to states (particularly those that share a border with Mexico) when it comes to healthcare, education, and law enforcement. Once unauthorized residents give birth on U.S. soil, they have access to additional benefits. Mothers and fathers of so-called "anchor babies" are able to apply on behalf of their child for a selection of public programs including Medicaid, Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) subsidies, and food stamps. Should they be apprehended by immigration authorities, they can use the child as justification against deportation and as a reason to request preferred action that will prevent hardship to a U.S.-born citizen. And once the child turns 21, he or she can sponsor his family members' citizenship.

Though Steve Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, confirms that no one can concretely prove that illegal immigrants are intentionally trying to create anchors to the United States by having babies, he says he sees evidence that the parents are well aware of the advantages of giving birth here. He offers detailed statistics by state, noting, for example, that 40 percent of the unauthorized residents in Texas and California utilize food assistance and that a third of those in New York use Medicaid, most often on behalf of a citizen child. Says Camarota, "It is clear that a very large fraction of the illegal population with U.S.-born children learn to navigate certain welfare programs like Medicaid, WIC, and preschool lunch. And it's clear that a significant body of knowledge in regards to that is shared among them on how to sign their children up."

With states like California and Arizona facing crushing budget shortfalls, it's not surprising, says Camarota, that people are becoming upset over birthright citizenship. "So after [illegal immigrants] break the law coming here, they have a baby and get to benefit further by getting a green card and permanent residency? There's a lot not to like there." As for the wealthy, visa-wielding moms-to-be, he sums up the general objection succinctly: "It's the same as buying U.S. citizenship and turns something we should prize and respect into a game."

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