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A Moral Dilemma: Should Health Care and Public Education Is Granted to Illegal Immigrants?

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Illegal immigration has been a complicated issue for the United States for the last century and a half. With the days of Ellis Island steamboats and open-door policies behind us, we are struggling to define the rights of those people who are coming to our country illegally. A multitude of issues arise from this situation: should illegal immigrants be able to work? Should they receive health care? Should they be educated in the public school system? Should they receive welfare benefits such as food stamps and unemployment checks? These, and many more questions are perplexing our government and its constituents. I have chosen to study two of these issues: health care and education. I will begin by discussing the Pleyer v. Doe case, California’s Proposition 187, and the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 as examples of case studies in this field.


The history of immigration restriction began in 1849 when the Supreme Court ruled that immigration was “foreign commerce” and could be regulated by Congress {Daniels, 12}. The first major ruling on the restriction of public education to illegal immigrants didn’t come until well over a century later. The Pleyer v. Doe case, which went before the Supreme Court in 1982, began from a revision to a 1975 Texas education law that let the state withhold funds from local school districts for educating children who were illegal residents in the United States. The main question was whether this law violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.1 There was also the question of whether education was a universal right, which couldn’t be denied. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that states couldn’t deny the right to public education on

illegal immigrants, solely based on their parent’s legal status because it violated the equal

protection clause. While this ruling succeeded in providing education to illegal immigrants, it also paved the way for future anti-illegal immigrant rights. Chief Justice Warren Burger’s dissent stated:

By definition, illegal aliens have no right whatever to be here, and the state may reasonably, and constitutionally, elect not to provide them with governmental service at the expense of those who are lawfully within the state {Powell, 92}.

This dissent would lead to the denial of welfare programs to illegal immigrants in the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. {Powell, 92}

Twelve years after the Pleyer v. Doe case, anti-illegal immigration rights activists in California introduced an amendment called Proposition 187. This bill would create a system that would verify the legal status of those seeking public education, nonemergency medical care, and social services and deny those who were illegally in the country {Rosenblum, 367}. Even though the proposition passed with 59% of the vote, it never went into effect. In 1995, U.S. district judge Mariana Pfaelzer ruled that the ban on elementary and high school education for illegal immigrants was unconstitutional because it violated the 1982 Pleyer v. Doe case. Two years later, Pfaelzer concluded that Proposition 187 was “not constitutional on its face” citing that it was not the job of the state to regulate immigration:

California is powerless to enact its own legislation scheme to regulate immigration. It is likewise powerless to enact its own legislative scheme to regulate alien access to public benefits {Rosenblum 70}

In the midst of all this legislation, Congress was passing the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. This bill, which looks a lot like Proposition 187 with all the kinks worked out, sought to cut government spending by cutting the cost of social services to illegal immigrants. As a strategic political move to gain Republican support, President Clinton signed the bill into existence. It denied welfare such as food stamps and Medicaid to those without the correct papers. While a 1998 amendment restored food stamp benefits to more than a quarter of those who had them pre-1996, Medicaid is still currently being denied to illegal immigrants.


Health Care

To address the question of health care, we can first look at an article titled “Illegal immigrants, health care, and social responsibility” by James Dwyer. In this article, Dwyer refutes the ideals of the two polarized sides in the illegal immigrant health care debate. He believes that “nationalists,” who argue that immigrants deserve no benefits because they are here illegally, are wrong because they focus too narrowly on the legal rules of formal citizenship.

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