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Immigration group hears concerns about health care

By M.J. Ellington (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — Denying preventative health care to illegal immigrants could lead to Alabamians paying more for health services and leave them vulnerable to contagious illnesses, state Health Officer Dr. Don Williamson, who heads the Alabama Department of Public Health, told a commission seeking solutions to illegal immigration problems Wednesday.

"I don't want to know the cost of people who are here illegally," he told the Joint Patriotic Immigration Commission. "My focus has to be on prevention."

Williamson said preventive care like vaccinations, family planning and maternal and infant care can curb the development of severe health problems and the spread of infections.

"We are trying to avoid establishing barriers that will keep people from getting preventive care," he said. When people put off going to a doctor because they can't afford to pay or they fear being penalized as illegal immigrants, Williamson said, their medical problems may go undetected until they become serious and more expensive.

Williamson said public health data shows reason for concern: Hispanic births increase by 250 percent every five years. The state recorded 400 Hispanic births in 1997 and 4,700 in 2007. Among this population, public health data shows a sharp increase in low-birth-weight babies and infant deaths, he said.

Williamson said the sharpest increase in infant deaths is among Hispanic mothers, fewer than half of whom received prenatal care. The spread of tuberculosis among unvaccinated workers is also a concern that points to lack of preventive care.

Williamson urged the commission to think carefully about recommending restrictions for programs that serve pregnant women, infants and children.

Impact on education

The state's educational system also is feeling the impact of immigration, said Craig Poun-cey, assistant superintendent for administration and finance for the state Department of Education. Pouncey said the state has about 14,000 students defined as English Language Learners, students for whom English is not their first language.

He estimates local school systems together spend $45 million to $47 million and the state another $8 million per year on unfunded mandates for interpreters and English-language classes. But Pouncey said federal regulations and Supreme Court decisions limit what schools can require when children enroll. A school may ask for but cannot require a birth certificate and must accept an affidavit from an adult verifying when and where a child was born. Schools also can only require that students get vaccinations within 30 days of beginning classes, he said.

Commission Chairman Jay Reed said commission members are close to agreement and he expects the group to formulate proposed legislation by the time the state Legislature convenes in February. He said the group's findings also will go to the state's congressional delegation.

Reed said it is clear that the commission wants Alabamians to be safe, wants access to essential services and wants regulations that are not unduly burdensome to employers.

Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, who serves on the commission, said he wants illegal immigrants to have health care but strict limits on access to other services. "If we are successful in setting law that prohibits them from being here, the business community will put pressure on Congress to enact stronger federal laws," he said.

Rep. Randy Hinshaw, D-Meri-dianville, said the Legislature already has passed laws that that the state could but doesn't use to identify illegal immigrants.

The state Department of Industrial Relations doesn't check the immigration status of every new employee, even though a law is in place for them to do so. Hinshaw said a former Industrial Relations director said the department has no money for the screenings. Hinshaw wants stiffer penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants.

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