If and when an immigration reform draft bill emerges from the group of eight senators working on it, it will enter the “regular order” of hearings and amendments, and the critics will coalesce around some aspects of the bill, especially those provisions that provide a “path to citizenship” as opposed to regularization. A bill that postponed any debate over citizenship until a future session of Congress would be far more likely to pass, but Democrats eager for political advantage and not simply the regularization of the millions living in the country illegally will nevertheless push for an early opportunity to register new voters.
Lost in that large and important debate will be much if any focus on the millions children who are themselves in the country illegally or born here to parents in the country illegally. This very large group –between 4 and 5 million with approximately one out of five born abroad– faces uniquely difficult health and socialization challenges which are the products of language, culture and income barriers. It is obvious to most people: These kids are usually in non-English speaking families in very poor neighborhoods with little if any connection to the typical institutional guardians of children –churches and schools, youth sports leagues and youth clubs.
One result is lower vaccination rates for foreign born children (though not nearly as bad as some suspect as some countries like Mexico have fine immunization programs). Another is childhood obesity of the serious sort, and while the federal government is studying obesity among very poor children (which includes children in the country illegally or whose parents are), this isn’t exactly quantum physics. A combination of lousy diet and a lack of exercise brought about by many factors including lack of facilities and safe supervision in sketchy neighborhoods is yielding a rising generation of very heavy kids who will be regularized by law but sentenced to a lifetime of health problems by virtue of their ballooning weight.
I have spent a decade and a half on Orange County’s “Prop 10” Commission, so named for the 1998 initiative sponsored by Rob Reiner which put a cigarette tax on every pack the proceeds of which are used by county commissions to help children aged 0 to 5 be healthy and ready to learn by the time they enter school. Our commission has spent about a half billion dollars over this period on a variety of programs and interventions on a broad spectrum of childhood health issues, including autism, child dentistry gaps and youth obesity. Again, this isn’t super-brain science, but common-sense stuff built on careful stewardship of public dollars. How hard is to see that these children are simply going to lack many of the health and fitness opportunities of children who are citizens and whose parents are citizens. Those gaps grow into significant public health issues, and quickly.
After all these years, the best programs are the simplest: public health nurses making visits to newborns and their families, intensive interventions into conditions like autism, free dentistry clinics, and the construction and staffing of safe soccer fields and pools. These are the sorts of things that would allow newly regularized children to thrive. Our Commission has never allocated dollars on the basis of immigration status, but it is obvious that the communities most in need of services are those in which the population of people here illegally is the highest.
As the debate over regularization opens, I hope some of the senators and representatives use their two cents worth to craft some provisions that will assist the newly regularized children and the citizen children of newly regularized parents quickly integrate into their communities and especially into their health and fitness communities. If there is spending in the bill, it should produce the sort of facilities this group can use.