Tuesday, June 29, 2010

San Mateo County Grand jury takes on touchy subject: illegal immigration

By John Horgan
San Mateo County Times
Posted: 06/28/2010 11:18:49 PM PDT
Updated: 06/28/2010 11:18:50 PM PDT

It's been the elephant in the San Mateo County living room for some time. But few policymakers or politicians have been willing to even admit it's there.

That changed last week. Suddenly, the controversial matter of illegal immigration was front and center, placed there by the county's civil grand jury.

The sensitive subject came up in a grand jury report on escalating public health care costs. The recommendation concluded in part that one way to trim those expenses would be to halt heavily subsidized non-emergency health care for uninsured illegal residents of the Peninsula.

The county, the report noted, is one of the few in California that provides such services for illegal immigrants.

Earlier this decade, as a county task force studied ways to handle health care for the uninsured, a survey found that there were about 40,000 targeted adults who did not have health insurance.

Of those, it was estimated, about half were not U.S. citizens. How many of those were illegal immigrants was unclear.

Those figures were for adults only. Children — whether here illegally or not, or whether they were U.S. citizens born to parents here illegally — were not included because they already had a functioning health care safety net financed by the county and its taxpayers.

When questions were raised about the impact of illegal immigration on the county's increasingly ambitious and well-intentioned health care effort at that time, there was little reaction.

One county honcho simply dismissed the topic as "a hot-button issue that comes and goes." End of discussion. After all, the economy was strong. Unemployment was low. Tax revenues were flowing.

Then things changed. Today, the county and state are hurting big time. It's as bad economically as any of us have seen in our lifetimes.

That appears to be one of the rationales for the grand jury's recommendations, which also include cutbacks in services for certain categories of the poor and other uninsured adults.

Naturally, there were immediate cries of pain. Humanitarian concerns were paramount. If these folks are here, runs the logic, their medical needs should be addressed.

If not, supporters of the illegal residents believe, a lack of preventive care and prenatal assistance will only lead to public health costs for the population at large. And, besides, it's the right thing to do in a civilized society.

Maybe so. But there can be little doubt that the county's generous health-benefits package can be a magnet for people without means and without proper immigration status.

If nothing else, the grand jury recommendations deserve a thorough and unbiased discussion. However, early returns indicate that such an honest conversation may not be in the political cards. For the county's taxpayers — and legal residents — that would be a shame.

Devastating critique

Another hot topic throughout the county continues to draw fire on all sides of the debate.

High-speed rail, a proposed system that would run from San Diego to Sacramento and San Francisco, is front and center now. The project would become an integral part of an expanded Caltrain corridor.

This month, Liam Julian, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, produced a lengthy and devastating critique of the many questionable assumptions involved in the plans for high-speed rail nationally and, in particular, Florida and California.

It can be found at www.hoover.org/publications/policy-review/article/5296. However, Julian's work does not address a key issue for Peninsula residents: High-speed rail's intimate relationship with Caltrain.


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