Illegal Immigrants Seek Health Care for Kids

Going to the doctor when you are a kid can be a pretty frightening experience. For millions of families in the United States illegally, the bigger concern is often being able to see a doctor at all.

Take a look at one case: Sergio is a shy and slightly awkward 13 year old. He's been in the United States since he was a baby, but because he wasn't born here he is illegal.

Sergio was diagnosed with asthma when he was an infant. At that time, the only option his family had for healthcare was to take Sergio to the nearest emergency room.

"Every time he got sick, it was expensive," says Sergio's mother Maria. "We had to sell things to pay."

Sergio now gets his health care at Los Angeles' Venice Family Clinic. It's the nation's largest free clinic, and it cares for some 22,000 patients every year. Sergio's mom pays between $5 and $10 for every visit, but each visit costs the clinic up to $120. The difference is picked up by contributions and taxpayers.

Groups opposed to healthcare -- or any services -- for illegal immigrants say taxpayers shouldn't be picking up tab at all.

Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, says providing health care only encourages more illegal immigration. He also admits that denying access to health care to children is a tough call to make.

"This is a difficult, moral, ethical issue," says Stein. "But people have to realize that those who are being unfair are the parents who break our laws."

Nationwide, health care for the uninsured and undocumented costs taxpayers in the billions of dollars every year. Still, those costs represent a small slice of the overall cost of paying for the uninsured.

A 2004 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated it costs federal, state and local governments $34.6 billion to pay for medical treatment for those without insurance.

In California's Napa Valley, where pampered grapes produce world-famous wines and where the vineyards demand year-round attention from skilled laborers, vintners have come up with a unique way to provide health care for field workers, service employees and others who can't afford health insurance.

Clinic Ole sees about 15,000 patients every year, about 65 percent of whom are Hispanic. Neither Clinic Ole nor the Venice Family Clinic ask about legal status.

"I assume that about 15 percent of our patient load is possibly undocumented," says Beatrice Bostick, executive director of Clinic Ole.

As clinics go, it's about as nice as they get. The building is new, well designed and maintained. It looks like an upscale suburban medical facility. The waiting room is perpetually packed. Kids even have a place to play as they wait for their turn to see the doctor.

Two years ago, the clinic even started offering dental services. The dental clinic is state of the art. Patients can even watch TV or movies on flat-screen monitors as their teeth are scraped and cleaned.

Bostick says overall costs for kids' health care would be higher if not for places like Clinic Ole. The average cost for a child's visit is $153 dollars. But if that same child went to an emergency room, the cost could be as much as $560.

The point, says Bostick, is that preventative care is much cheaper in the long run than is dealing with a medical issue once it becomes emergent.

Still, FAIR's Stein says, where services for illegal immigrants are concerned, any price is too high.

"If you spin out the logical conclusion of where this is going," he says, "the United States is becoming a massive welfare state."

Maria de la Paz disagrees. She says she may be here illegally, but she has worked hard and paid taxes since she got here in the mid 1990s. Like many parents, she wants what's good for her son.

Sergio's asthma is now under control, and his mother says regular doctor visits made all the difference.