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Religious leaders seek healthcare for illegal immigrants

September 18, 2009 |  8:35 pm


Calling access to healthcare a moral and spiritual imperative, Los Angeles faith leaders held a religious service and launched a phone bank Friday to urge congressional leaders to include illegal immigrants in any healthcare reform plan.

The question of whether illegal immigrants should have access to a government-sponsored health insurance marketplace has provoked heated debate and criticism of President Obama’s proposals from both the left and right. Obama’s position that his plans do not include illegal immigrants has been attacked as dishonest by some conservatives and as a betrayal by some liberals.

 “If we were politicians, this would be definitely political suicide to come out for healthcare reform for those who are undocumented,” said Father Roland Lozano, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church, known as La Placita, near Olvera Street. “But we’re doing it because we believe ... it’s what God wants us to do.”

Father Richard Estrada, who heads an immigrant services organization known as Jovenes Inc., said inclusion of all immigrants was consistent with biblical teachings that all people are children of God who must care for society’s most vulnerable.

And the Rev. Will Wauters, vicar of the Church of the Epiphany, an Episcopal church in Lincoln Heights, said inclusion of all immigrants would benefit the proposed health insurance marketplace by expanding it with those who numerous studies have shown are younger and healthier than native-born Americans.

According to a July 2009 study in the American Journal of Public Health, even immigrants with health insurance use less medical care than U.S.-born citizens and are less likely to suffer from arthritis, diabetes, coronary heart disease and other chronic health conditions.

The Roman Catholic Church, the nation’s largest religious denomination with 67 million members, considers healthcare a basic human right, a position the church has articulated since 1963, when it was included in a papal encyclical by Pope John XXIII. As a result, the church believes that illegal immigrants should be included in any healthcare reform plan, according to Kathy Saile, director of domestic social development with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“If healthcare is a basic right, you can’t start cutting people out,” she said.

But some religious conservatives disagree. Richard Land, who heads the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, said biblical exhortations to care for the poor apply to people of faith, not to governments, and should inspire private charitable efforts but not taxpayer-funded plans for illegal immigrants.

“It’s noble and commendable to be charitable with your own money, but it’s something different to be charitable with other people’s money,” he said.

At La Placita on Friday, more than 150 worshipers attended a Mass of “reconciliation and hope” for an all-inclusive healthcare reform plan. Later, parishioners were asked to call their elected officials to ask that all immigrants be granted access to health insurance.

For Josephina Dedoy, a 58-year-old Mexico native and legal U.S. resident, the debate is intensely personal. She and her husband, a naturalized U.S. citizen, have a daughter who has epilepsy and is undocumented, having been born in Mexico before her parents earned legal status.

Dedoy said the family had insurance coverage until recently, when her husband was laid off after 17 years as a painter and designer. The family looked into private health plans but found them unaffordable at nearly $1,000 a month.

Now, Dedoy said, she is anxious over how they will pay for their daughter’s medical care. But as Obama supporters, Dedoy said, she believes the president will support people like them.

“We’re waiting for the mercy of the government for those in need like us,” she said.

-- Teresa Watanabe

Photo: A woman attends noon Mass at Our Lady Queen of Angels church in Los Angeles, where priests held a news conference Friday to demand a voice for immigrants in the current debate over healthcare reform. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times