‘Border Baby’ Boom Strains S. Texas

James Pinkerton, Houston Chronicle, September 24, 2006

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 and health officials say they are overwhelmed by both the new arrivals and those immigrant mothers who already are in the state. Even Houston’s feeling the pinch. 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.

Also 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 know that 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.”

Unfortunately, doctors say, Starr County isn’t alone.

“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.”

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‘Anchor babies’

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, D.C.

“It’s a fairly big factor in complicating the removal of illegal aliens,” Martin 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 illegal immigrants.

Birthright citizenship, as it is known, has been in force since the approval of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment in 1868. But several bills under consideration in Congress would abolish the longstanding federal policy. 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 voted overwhelmingly on Sept. 8 to end birthright citizenship.

Undocumented immigrants say they are being attacked unfairly and think that 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.

{snip} 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 U.S. more than compensate for the costs of their medical bills.

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Still, someone has to pay the bills, and not everyone is happy about that.

Uncollected medical 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 on 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 for the shortfall, Starr County’s hospital district is proposing a 25 percent tax hike.

Already, the U.S. government is pitching in, setting 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 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.”

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Total cost unknown

“It puts them in the position of being border police,” said Amanda Engler, a spokeswoman for the Texas Hospital Association in Austin.

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“We do not explicitly ask if our patients are illegal, but we do ask them for proof of Harris County residency,” district spokeswoman Shannon Rasp said. “Often citizenship status becomes clearer when billing issues come up.”

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“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,” Rasp said.

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.

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