A dangerous decision

Published 10:29 pm Friday, April 27, 2007

By Staff
Not long ago, what should have been a relatively simple decision to approve Beaufort County Health Department’s contract with the state became a discussion mired in ifs and ands. The contract was approved, but discussion ended with a majority of Beaufort County commissioners voting to try to figure out how many noncitizens use county health services. That’s a dangerous decision.
It’s the kind of choice that, while good in theory, is just too risky in practice.
When Commissioner Robert Cayton, who represents the county on the health board, made a motion earlier this month to approve the health department’s contract “for the good health of the citizens of Beaufort County,” Commissioner Hood Richardson said the motion was made “accurately” in that it pertained to citizens. That statement marked the beginning of an amendment to the motion and the beginning of a quest for numbers.
Commissioners seem to want to use data on “noncitizens” to root out statistics on how many illegal immigrants are using the county health department. Essentially, they want to be able to say: “Hey, if you’re not from here and you use our stuff, you have to pay for it.”
That seems simple and reasonable on its face. But a deeper look shows the notion is problematic on several levels, not the least of which is that the terms “noncitizen” and “illegal immigrant” should not be used interchangeably.
A person who is here working legally should not be lumped into the same category as a person who does not obtain a green card to be in this country. Like it or not, migrant workers are willing to do the work that Americans aren’t willing to do anymore — and for lower wages. So, if they’re here legally and they need services, they ought not have to jump through hoops. If what commissioners truly seek is information on illegal immigrants, there’s no need for them to dance around that by using more vague terminology.
Still, seeking statistics on illegal immigrants is not a simple matter. And even attempting to do so may put other county residents at risk. That’s not sensationalism; it’s just plain truth.
Beaufort County Health Director Roxanne Holloman said about 25 percent of the health department’s patients are Hispanic, based on figures she has from the 2005-2006 fiscal year. But what Holloman does not know — what she cannot know — is how many of those patients were or are in the United States illegally. The law prohibits Holloman — and any other public-health director anywhere — from asking such a question.
County Manager Paul Spruill injected that the motion to collect data should include the wording “to the legal extent possible.” Based on his work with commissioners, we’re inclined to believe Spruill is in training to become a U.S. diplomat. What Spruill knows — and what that language reflects — is that commissioners aren’t going to get very far on this journey.
They may be able to get statistics on the different “races” of people that health department workers see. But try as they might, county commissioners cannot get around a law that was made by an authority higher than they are.
But even trying to get statistics on illegal immigrants — on this matter in particular — amounts to playing Russian roulette with the public’s health. Cayton, one of two commissioners who opposed the idea, called the motion “an invitation to individuals who are not from this country to not get the help they need.”
And he’s right. Any fear that keeps a noncitizen away from the health department — be he or she a legal or illegal immigrant — is the same fear that can be the cause of a public-health crisis. And crises don’t differentiate between citizens and noncitizens. Beaufort County commissioners should think carefully before proceeding much farther down this treacherous trail.