Today, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) released a new fact sheet about immigrants and the health care system. At a public event, CIS made it clear that while immigrants may not be to blame for all the problems with the U.S. health care system, they certainly are part of the problem, and the only solution is to step up immigration enforcement and reduce future immigration. Hmmm, isn’t that their solution to everything?

While stating that free health care for “illegals” is a problem (even though the bills in Congress explicitly deny coverage to undocumented immigrants), CIS focused on health care benefits for legal immigrants, implying that legal immigrants should be denied affordable health care and that comprehensive immigration reform would destroy the health care system. This is simply the latest attempt to silence any constructive discussion about important issues and scare the American public by using immigrants as a handy scapegoat.

The fact is we need to reform the health care system AND we need to reform our immigration system. We can and must do both. Yet some still try to stymie both goals by confounding the two issues.

Each year the U.S. government generously admits immigrants into the country to live, work, reunite with their families, and pursue the American dream. Some have parents, children, or spouses in the United States who sponsored them. Others have been admitted to fill jobs. Still others arrive as refugees or asylees, fleeing persecution in their home country. A large percentage of immigrants eventually become U.S. citizens. Just like U.S. citizens, legal immigrants work and pay taxes. Large numbers of legal immigrants are currently serving in the U.S. military. Legal immigrants are part of our communities, schools, workplaces, and places of worship.

Today many legal immigrants are ineligible for health benefits due to the 1996 welfare reform law which imposed severe restrictions on legal immigrants’ access to federal benefits. Today’s health care reform legislation provides an opportunity to review these restrictions and correct the excesses of the 1996 law.

It is common sense that the more people who pay into the health care system, the more the costs are spread out over the entire population. Immigrants are eager to pay their fair share and contribute to paying for health reform. No one is asking for free handouts. This is about allowing hardworking individuals to access affordable healthcare. Furthermore, access to health care, particularly preventive care services, not only improves public health, but is a cost savings. The Center for Science in the Public Interest concluded that comprehensive prevention programs are the most economical way to maximize health and minimize health care costs.

Health care is not a zero-sum game. Including legal immigrants does not mean that U.S. citizens get less care. However, hijacking the conversation and making it about immigrants – or socialism or Nazis or President Obama’s citizenship – does mean that there is less space for meaningful, constructive debate over the real problems affecting this country. While maintaining the status quo may be the goal of many naysayers and protestors, those who want real change must stand up armed with the facts and demand real reform.