Anchor Babies: Hurting Hospitals And Raising Taxes


Hospitals feel strain of babies born to undocumented moms

Web Posted: 09/25/2006 11:59 PM CDT
James Pinkerton
Houston Chronicle

RIO GRANDE CITY — First it was a trickle, now it's a flood.

Rising numbers of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America are streaming into Texas to give birth, straining hospitals and costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, health officials say.

Doctors say they are overwhelmed by both the new arrivals and immigrant mothers who already are in the state.

Feeling the strain is Starr County, an already-poor South Texas county that has the region's only taxpayer-supported hospital district.

Immigrants "want a U.S.-born baby," and they know emergency room staffers don't collect any money up front, said Dr. Mario Rodriguez, an obstetrician in Starr County.

"The word is out: Come to Starr County and get delivered for free. Why pay $1,000 in Mexico when you can get it for free?" Rodriguez said.

"When we are separated only by the distance of the river — it's easy to do," Starr County hospital administrator Thalia Muñoz said.

"It's gotten worse, and it's because the economy in Mexico is not good and because we provide all these benefits," she said, referring to Medicaid, food stamps and other assistance programs.

Starr County isn't alone.

In Houston, an estimated 70 percent to 80 percent of the 10,587 births at Ben Taub General Hospital and Lyndon B. Johnson General Hospital last year were to undocumented immigrants, administrators say.

"Our little snapshot is duplicated in all the municipalities between here and California," said Tony Falcon, a Rio Grande City physician who was appointed to the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission in April.

"What you see here is what is happening in Brownsville, McAllen, El Paso and San Diego."

In Bexar County, it's impossible to say how many babies are born to undocumented mothers, said Leni Kirkman, spokeswoman for University Health System, which serves as the county's public hospital district.

Patients are tracked only on whether they live inside or outside the county, she said.

"We just don't know. I don't have any breakout showing women's immigration status," Kirkman said, noting that the district sees about 3,000 births per year.

A better effort began last year to try to keep count of often-uninsured undocumented patients, following federal standards required by a new program to reimburse hospitals for debt incurred for treating them.

The program covers only the first two days of treatment, no matter the ultimate length of stay or total cost for treatment. Kirkman said that last year — from May through December — the district billed the government for $4.4 million and was reimbursed $1.7 million.

Falcon, who operates a private family clinic and delivers babies at the Starr County hospital, said about a third of his deliveries are what he calls "walk-ins" — mothers in labor showing up at the emergency room.

"Obviously, it has a huge impact on patient health and the kind of health care that's provided," he said. "You don't get the kind of prenatal care you should get."

Immigration-control advocates regard the U.S.-born infants as "anchor babies" because they give their undocumented parents and relatives a way to petition for citizenship. They estimate that 360,000 of these babies are born in the U.S. every year and warn that the numbers are rising.

Once parents have an anchor baby, they become more difficult to deport, said Jack Martin, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a lobby organization in Washington.

"It's a fairly big factor in complicating the removal of illegal aliens," he said. "Illegal aliens know that and, to some extent, we think they're being influenced into having children as soon as they get into the U.S. to complicate their removal."

Some lawmakers want to begin denying citizenship to babies born to undocumented immigrants.

Birthright citizenship, as it is known, has been in force since the approval of the Constitution's 14th Amendment in 1868.

Congress is considering several bills that would abolish it. Sponsors include U.S. Reps. Ron Paul, R-Lake Jackson, and Nathan Deal, R-Ga.

In a largely symbolic move, the Michigan House of Representatives on Sept. 8 voted overwhelmingly to end birthright citizenship.

Undocumented immigrants say they are being attacked unfairly and believe all children born in the U.S. should have equal rights.

Socorro Gonzalez, an undocumented immigrant who in August gave birth to her fourth child on U.S. soil, said she and her husband aren't trying to take advantage of immigration laws or abuse the health care system.

"We're not here to have a child. We are here to work," she said as she cradled her infant son, Orlando Soto.

Gonzalez, 42, said she moved to South Texas four years ago to join her husband, a cabinetmaker.

Two of their older children were born at a private midwife's clinic, she said, and two were delivered at taxpayer expense at hospitals in McAllen.

Gonzalez said the benefits of undocumented immigrants' labor in the United States more than compensate for the costs of their medical bills.

"I don't see why they should deny a medical service if we're here struggling for this country," she said.

"Because of the help of Mexican workers, whether they want us or not, this country is progressing."

Still, someone has to pay the bills. Starr County Memorial Hospital had $3.6 million in uncollected medical bills in 2005, up from $1.5 million in 2002. The total when fiscal 2006 ends Sept. 30 is expected to hit $3.9 million, Chief Financial Officer Rafael Olivarez said.

Unpaid bills for the past five years will reach nearly $13 million, he said.

To make up the shortfall, Starr County's hospital district is proposing a 25 percent tax increase.

"We're appealing to the community," Olivarez said.

(Backstop's Note: It is complete and utter nonsense that illegal aliens are not costing U.S. taxpayers money - see red highlighted areas above. ALL ANCHOR BABY LAWS NEED TO BE REPEALED RFN!!)

The U.S. government is pitching in and has set aside $1 billion in Medicaid funds to pay for emergency care received by undocumented migrants over the next four years.

But Olivarez said getting the Medicaid reimbursements isn't easy.

Federal officials "told us at a meeting they would pay us about 20 cents on the dollar," he said. "But it's better than nothing."

Eighty-three percent of the undocumented immigrants receiving in-patient care at Harris County Hospital District hospitals and clinics last year were from Mexico, officials said.

Six percent were from El Salvador or Guatemala. The remaining 11 percent were from such countries as Britain, Canada, Haiti, India, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria and Vietnam.
"Using anecdotal information provided us by our staff, statistics from other public hospital systems, and our patient demographics, we believe that approximately 70 to 80 percent of our obstetrics patients are undocumented," said Shannon Rasp, spokeswoman for Harris County Hospital District.

In all, 57,072 patients visited the district's hospitals, clinics and health centers last year, and nearly a fifth were undocumented, Rasp said. The cost of their treatment was $97.3 million, up from $55 million in 2002.

Taxpayers are "bearing the burden of a very flawed immigration system," said George V. Masi, the district's chief operating officer.

A decade ago, a McAllen hospital dressed its security guards in green uniforms resembling those of the U.S. Border Patrol. Pro-immigration activists quickly put an end to it. But the tactic seemed to deter "walk-ins," said Dr. Porfirio Muñoz, medical director of a federally funded health clinic in Rio Grande City.

Today, he said, extreme measures may be needed once again to stop "wanton abuse" of the system.

Among his ideas: Have the Border Patrol interview patients after their babies are delivered at Starr County Memorial.

"I suspect the drop-in rate would fall very quickly," he said.