She was 16 years old and scared, but Maria Guadalupe Valdez made the two-day trek through the desert to come to the U.S.
Twelve years later, the 28-year—old illegal immigrant is caught up in the debate over illegal immigration, and that frightens her, too.
She and her husband live in a tidy two-bedroom mobile home in Greeley with their four U.S.-born children, ages 9, 7, 6 and 1.
Their youngsters—three boys and a girl—motivate the couple to work long hours to build a better life for their family.
But these American children also are a symbol of controversy. Opponents of illegal immigration call them “anchor babies”—a term considered by many to be derogatory, even racist, because it implies that Hispanics are having children as a way to stay in the U.S.
The thinking is that U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants help “anchor” the parents in the country and keep them from being deported. The refrain is that “anchor babies” help their parents tap into a gamut of free or low-cost social services, burdening taxpayers with millions of dollars in medical care and services.
The reality is that having a child does little to help an illegal immigrant avoid deportation, achieve legal status or gain government services for themselves, experts say.
But to some extent, opponents of illegal immigration are right about the medical costs.
One in 10 births in Colorado is covered by emergency Medicaid, a category of federal aid specifically designed to cover medical care for those who are poor enough for Medicaid but can’t prove legal status to qualify.
The state calls these mothers “noncitizens,” which includes illegal immigrants, as well as legal immigrants with less than the required five years of U.S. residency to qualify for Medicaid. The department doesn’t keep a breakdown of legal vs. illegal.
During fiscal 2005, emergency Medicaid paid $30.5 million—half state and half federal funds—for 6,707 deliveries to noncitizens in Colorado. The average payment to hospitals for each delivery was $4,547.
Emergency Medicaid for all kinds of health care accounts for just under 2 percent of the total Medicaid budget, so care for noncitizens isn’t the primary source of spiraling Medicaid costs. And state and federal authorities say they do not think a large number of immigrants fraudulently sign up for Medicaid.
But the medical cost for a U.S.-born child of illegal immigrants doesn’t stop with labor and delivery.
Children born to mothers who qualify for emergency Medicaid are automatically enrolled in Medicaid. And the state assumes those children will remain on Medicaid through the age of 18.
For 2005-2006, the program paid an average of $1,400 a year for each child on Medicaid in Colorado. At that rate, the projected health care cost of each U.S.-born child of a noncitizen is $25,200 over 18 years.
A U.S.-born child of low-income illegal immigrants is entitled to health care and food stamps. But the child’s citizenship doesn’t help the parent get those same benefits.
Recent data from the Pew Hispanic Center show that immigrant women in the U.S. are having fewer children now than their cohorts did in the 1980s. There are just more women immigrants now.
But Mike McGarry, spokesman for the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform, believes illegal immigrants intentionally have U.S. babies.
“Anchor babies, by definition, is a strategy move,” he said. “It anchors them more tightly in this country.”
He said granting automatic citizenship to children of parents who are here illegally or those who come here on a tourist visa “is a travesty to the 14th Amendment.”
The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
McGarry said the amendment was intended to give citizenship to children of black slaves during the time of the Civil War, but it’s now being abused by illegal immigrants.
“In the U.S., Congress has the power to eliminate that,” McGarry said.
Constitutional amendments must be passed two-thirds of each house of Congress, then ratified by two-thirds of the states.
A gateway, if not an anchor
Whatever an illegal immigrant’s intentions, for many, having a baby is what draws them to health care services.
Many young illegal immigrant women interviewed by the Rocky Mountain News said they first learned about the U.S. medical system when they became pregnant. Health care clinics then alerted them to other taxpayer-funded programs, such as the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program for low-income pregnant women and children up to 5 years old.
Medical clinic officials also let pregnant women know that emergency Medicaid will pay for their delivery, if their income is low enough.
For the first half of 2006, pregnancy-related conditions made up nine of the top 10 reasons noncitizens showed up in emergency rooms, according to fresh data from the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing.
The only nonpregnancy condition on the top 10 list was emergency dialysis for kidney failure, which is often a consequence of untreated diabetes. Hispanics are twice as likely to have diabetes as Anglos, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data.
Montes, like many illegal immigrant mothers with U.S. citizen children, didn’t really understand who pays for Medicaid. Many don’t see Medicaid’s coverage of their delivery or WIC services as a “benefit.”
When asked what Medicaid is and how it’s funded, Montes didn’t know.
Kids no help with legal status
Immigration lawyers say a lack of knowledge about immigration laws misleads many Americans into thinking a U.S.-born child gives a parent an express pass to legal status. It doesn’t.
A U.S.-born child must turn 21 before petitioning the federal government on behalf of his or her parents.
“It would be probably next to impossible” to cross the border, have a baby and get legal status because of that child, said Kim Salinas, a lawyer and immigrant advocate.
“People would have to be thinking 21 years ahead. It just doesn’t happen,” Salinas said.
Under the law, immigrants who have lived in the U.S. illegally for a year or longer must return to their native country and wait 10 years to apply to re-enter legally, said Jeff Joseph, a Denver immigration attorney.
There are exceptions to the 10—year wait.
An immigrant might persuade authorities to let him stay in the country if a son or daughter who is a U.S. citizen can prove that he or she will suffer “extreme and unusual hardship” without the parent, said Joseph.
Such waivers are very difficult to obtain, however.
Advantages are clear
Illegal immigrant parents say they have children for the same reasons as anyone else. But the opportunities awaiting a citizen child encourage a parent to put down roots in the U.S.
And they do understand that their U.S.-born children have advantages and rights they don’t have.
“They have a Social Security number and documents that they’re here legally. They will be able to go to college and be fluent in Spanish and English because I’m going to teach them both languages,” said Olivas, the 19-year-old with two U.S.-born children.
Olivas is relieved that her children won’t ever face her current dilemma of not being able to go to college or get an office job because of her illegal immigrant status.
“I graduated from high school last year. I can’t do anything with it (her diploma),” Olivas said.
As for Olivas, she’s determined to stay. Her children are American.
“They are from here. Why would I take them to Mexico where there’s only poverty?”
By the numbers
68,922: Number of babies born in Colorado in 2005.
24,616 or 36 percent were born to parents on Medicaid.
6,707 or 10 percent were born to noncitizens—illegal immigrants and legal immigrants in the U.S. less than five years—and paid for by emergency Medicaid. That’s 27 percent of all Medicaid-covered births.
>Sources: Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing
Children of illegal immigrants
• So-called “anchor babies”—children of illegal immigrants—are seen as a way for a parent to build ties to the U.S., get services and avoid deportation. But having a child who is a U.S. citizen does little to help an illegal immigrant gain legal status or government services, experts say.
• At least one in 10 babies in Colorado is born to noncitizens—i.e., illegal immigrants and legal immigrants in the U.S. less than the five years that are required to qualify for Medicaid. Those births are covered by a government program called emergency Medicaid.
• In the first half of 2006, pregnancy-related conditions made up nine of the top 10 reasons noncitizens showed up in emergency rooms. The other reason was emergency dialysis for a kidney failure, often a result of diabetes.
• For 2005-06, each child on Medicaid cost an average of $1,400 a year. At that rate, the projected health care cost of each U.S.-born child of a noncitizen is $25,200 over 18 years. The state assumes that children born on Medicaid will stay on it.
• Immigrant women in the U.S. are having fewer children now than immigrants did in the 1980s, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. But there are more women immigrants now.