shutterstock_83108125In the current public debate regarding comprehensive immigration reform, the focus on immigrant access to health benefits has been almost exclusively limited to cost (which is undeniably an important aspect) and has rarely addressed the social gains that result from investing in a healthy population. For the most part, the health of immigrant women has been left out of the discussion, which is, in many aspects, problematic.

As reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 54.6 percent of foreign born women were labor force participants in 2010.  In addition, immigrant women who perform their work in the domestic sphere help sustain the current workforce, raise the future workforce, care for the elderly and sick, and play a critical role in household well-being. Women’s contributions to the economy are, therefore, not only immediate, but will be felt in the future.

According to the World Health Organization, women’s health is an urgent priority demanding greater attention. From a societal perspective, there are strong indicators that investing in women’s health (and, especially, in maternal-newborn health) not only constitutes a value in itself, but also may result in economic growth. This applies not only to women in general but to immigrant women in particular.

In spite of overwhelming evidence pointing to the societal benefits of investing in women’s health, some immigrant women are among the most marginalized groups and those that are most excluded from the health system. A recent study conducted by a bi-national research team at the National Population Council of Mexico (CONAPO) and the University of California provides telling insights about the health outcomes of Mexican immigrant women. According to the study, there are currently 5.4 million Mexican women in the United States, comprising the largest immigrant group in the country. Because the vast majority  work in the informal sector, their access to employer-based health insurance is severely restricted. In fact, “Mexican women have the lowest levels of health insurance coverage of all ethnic groups in the United States”.  They are also less likely to benefit from public programs for low-income families.

Ironically, in spite of their socioeconomic status, low levels of health insurance coverage, and limited use of health services, Mexican women are overall in a better state of health than might be expected. This phenomenon, often referred to as the immigrant paradox, specifically refers to the low prevalence of certain chronic diseases among Mexican women, including cardiovascular diseases, cancer, or hypertension, which is due in part to the younger average age of the group. Generally good maternal health outcomes among Mexican women also reinforce the paradox. However, as every other human being, they are not immune to the risks of getting sick or suffering from other health conditions.

While the specifics of a reform package that will eventually legalize undocumented immigrants are still being decided, some oppose giving the newly legalized population access to affordable health coverage—in particular, through the Affordable Care Act. However, considering the societal goals of disease prevention and the health of the population at large, barring legalized immigrants from access to affordable insurance through health exchanges (which the beneficiaries themselves would purchase), does not seem to be a wise move. Even from a financial point of view, as the report points out, bringing a large pool of generally young healthy people into coverage would be indeed beneficial. It would therefore be foolish and against America’s best interests to prevent immigrants from paying a fair share of their health care coverage.