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TB: A manifestation of failed enforcement

Location: Unknown

April 30, 2004
Contact: Tom Pfeifer
(202) 225-5811

TB: A manifestation of failed enforcement

By Elton Gallegly

The story of Feliciano Morelos, the illegal immigrant who spread tuberculosis up and down the West Coast, is a case study on how illegal immigration causes real danger to American society.

As senior writer Melinda Burns pointed out in her April 25 News-Press report, had Mr. Morelos immigrated legally to the United States, he would have been screened for tuberculosis and denied entry. But he wasn't, and has been credited with infecting 56 other people. In 1996, the John Hopkins Center for Tuberculosis Research estimated it cost $13,000 to treat each case of TB. Counting Mr. Morelos, that means it cost U.S. taxpayers $741,000 in 1996 dollars to stem the Morelos-caused epidemic.

But, as frightening as the Morelos story is, it's only the tip of the iceberg. About 53 percent of the people diagnosed in the United States each year with TB are born outside the U.S. In the Los Angeles area, 80 percent of people infected with TB are foreign-born, with Mexico leading the way, followed by the Philippines, Vietnam, India and China.

In 2002, there were 15,075 cases of TB diagnosed in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control. That's a national health cost of $196 million-in 1996 dollars.

In the 1940s, the United States launched a concerted effort to wipe out tuberculosis within our borders. It was largely successful, and by 1983, TB cases hit an all-time low. Then, as illegal immigration began to surge after the 1986 amnesty, so did tuberculosis.

It doesn't have to be this way.

Mr. Morelos was arrested last year on suspicion of drunken driving and driving without a license. That's when they discovered the TB. Rather than being treated with kid gloves, Mr. Morelos should have been turned over to immigration authorities, who should have put a hold on him and deported him as soon as he was no longer contagious. We don't do that here. With misguided compassion, and to our own detriment, we treat illegal immigrants as if they have every right to be here and every right to use health services designed for natives and legal immigrants.

Illegal immigrants aren't likely to have health insurance. When sick, even if the illness is minor, illegal immigrants tend to go to emergency rooms to be treated. Emergency rooms, equipped as trauma centers, are by nature the most expensive health care centers available. When filled by people with minor ailments, they also cannot give proper care to those in crisis.

It's an unbearable burden. In Los Angeles County, six county hospitals and nine public clinics have closed since 1999 because of unpaid care. Santa Barbara-based Tenet is trying to sell another 14 hospitals in L.A., and will close them by year's end if buyers are not found. Santa Paula Hospital closed this year because of the crippling burden of uncompensated care.

A California Medical Association study found that 82 percent of the state's emergency rooms lost money in 2002. It costs emergency rooms an estimated $325 million a year and emergency room doctors another $110 million a year to provide uncompensated care. That's in addition to the $648 million California and the federal government reimbursed health care providers for services extended to illegal immigrants. Such burdens hurt those who can least afford it, our native working poor who lose access to the only health care available to them.

The answer is simple. When an illegal immigrant is arrested for any reason, such as Mr. Morelos was last year, he should be deported after fulfilling his obligations to our justice system. A law I authored in 1997, if enforced, would do just that. When an illegal immigrant seeks emergency health care, it should be granted, but then the person should be deported as well.

Instead of cracking down on illegal immigration, we make it more enticing. We wink and nod when they supply forged documents to get a job. We accept easily forged and fraudulently obtained matricula consular cards as a free pass on our streets. Illegal immigrants who enroll in the University of California system pay in-state tuition. Their educations are subsidized not only by Californians, but also by U.S. citizens who come to our state legally from Nevada, Oregon, Washington or Arizona and pay higher tuitions. And we allow illegal immigrants to obtain free medical care without penalties.

Tuberculosis will not retreat in the United States again until we get illegal immigration under control. We will not solve our emergency room crisis until we get illegal immigration under control.

We will not get illegal immigration under control until we stop providing incentives to come here.

Rep. Elton Gallegly is chairman of the subcommittee on International Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Human Rights, a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, and a member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

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