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Kathy Ko Chin Headshot

Everyone Should Have a Chance at the American Dream

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NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

I believe in the American Dream because I am the embodiment of it. I believe in America because it was founded upon justice and equal opportunity. And, I believe that there is no such thing as an illegal human being.

As a child of Chinese immigrants, I know what hardships and sacrifices my parents endured so my siblings and I could achieve the American Dream. We need to defend that promise and give hope to all immigrants, regardless of their country of origin and regardless of condition.

President Obama issued a call to action this week: reform our broken immigration system so that everyone has a chance at opportunity. It's a call for the entire nation and a charter for the 113th Congress.

But commonsense changes to our immigration laws cannot be about border security, immigration backlogs and a pathway to citizenship alone. Congress and the administration must tackle the barriers that immigrants -- like my parents -- encountered, barriers that stand in the way of full equality for all.

Any changes by Congress or the White House must make America a stronger and healthier nation, and that starts with ensuring that everyone has access to essential health care. Immigration status and health care are intimately connected, determining at the most basic level a person's present and future well-being.

This connection is something that minority communities know all too well. For Asian Americans, the majority of whom are born outside the U.S., the issues hit close to home. And among migrants from the compact jurisdictions of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the legacy of America's militarization and nuclear test bombing contributes to major health problems. However, federal law excludes them from the health and social service programs their citizen counterparts are entitled to, despite the unique relationship their homelands have with the U.S.

The two issues of health and immigration policy will converge on Jan. 1, 2014. As up to 32 million Americans exercise their new eligibility for health insurance -- courtesy of full implementation of the health care law -- immigration status will become a major factor in determining who gets care. Many immigrants will be barred from making fundamental life decisions such as what type of health insurance to purchase, how to pay for coverage, whether they can see a doctor when they are sick, and whether they can get any coverage at all simply because of their status.

Despite this, some will use the renewed effort to reform America's immigration policies to further restrict immigrants' health care. That is a costly mistake. Without adequate health care coverage, the uninsured are forced to forgo primary and preventive care and are only able to seek medical attention in emergency cases, which overburdens the health care system and raises costs for everyone.

As Americans, we say we are a nation built by immigrants. Yet, while immigrants work hard, create jobs, and pay taxes to help pump money into our economy, we deny them opportunities to live healthy lives and provide quality health care for their families.

Health reform already restricts the ability of some immigrants to purchase health coverage in the new marketplaces, even if individuals use their own hard-earned money. Other federal laws impose arbitrary time limits on lawfully present immigrants that bar them from critical health programs for five years or more -- despite the fact that they pay into the same system. Even recent federal policies that provide relief for young immigrants studying in college or serving in our military unfairly exclude them from the new affordable health care options under health reform.

These policies fly in the face of our values and fiscal security and stand in the way of immigrants fully contributing to their communities and new home nation. They serve only to exacerbate many of the barriers these hard-working young adults and families experience, putting the health of generations at risk.

Fixing our nation's immigration policies is no simple task. As President Obama said in his inauguration speech, "Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity." It's time for Congress to roll up its sleeves and get to work on fixing our broken immigration system while supporting the health and well-being of all American residents.