By Patricia Zapor
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Though they believe the church is largely on the same page as Congress when it comes to other aspects of health care and immigration reform, a delegation of Hispanic bishops came away from meetings with several groups of House and Senate leaders Sept. 17 concerned that immigrants might be left out of health reform.
At a briefing for reporters after their morning of meetings with senators and then with the groups representing congressional Hispanics, two of the bishops said they were optimistic that looming health care legislation will not fund abortions and will include conscience protections for health care workers. Those have been two major areas of concern for the Catholic Church as the legislation is being shaped.
San Antonio Archbishop Jose H. Gomez said the group of half a dozen Hispanic bishops told the members of Congress that in addition to not funding abortions and including a conscience clause, their concern is that health care reform offers a universal plan in which everyone is able to participate and that would provide care from conception to natural death.
He said they want the plan to include all immigrants, whether they're in the country legally or not, though the bishops recognize that it's probably not politically viable to expect undocumented immigrants to be covered in this bill.
"Everybody should have a way to participate," said Archbishop Gomez.
Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Calif., said at the briefing that besides not providing government-funded care to people in the country illegally, as President Barack Obama promised in his address to Congress Sept. 9, there has been concerns expressed that even legal immigrants might be left out of the system.
Bishop Soto said the exclusion of government-supported insurance for undocumented immigrants is an issue with which the bishops might disagree, but could concede as a political necessity. But the legislation "has to include at a minimum some kind of safety net for the undocumented," particularly if the goal of a nationwide health care reform plan is to improve the overall health of society, he said.
"We realize it's a very contentious issue," said Bishop Soto. "But there has to be some kind of a safety net." If undocumented immigrants cannot participate in health insurance, he added, "they will end up in emergency rooms."
Micheal Hill, a member of the government relations staff of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said after the briefing that proposals made in mid-September could discourage or even prohibit illegal immigrants from buying health insurance for themselves or their families.
The Immigration Policy Center Sept. 17 sent out an analysis of the Senate Finance Committee version of a health care reform bill, saying it includes "harsh eligibility restriction on legal immigrants," such as legal residency verification procedures that would discourage people from participating whether they're here legally or not.
Bishop Soto told Catholic News Service after the briefing that "the reason this even comes up is Congress has previously failed to deal with comprehensive immigration reform."
The bishops said they came away from their meetings feeling confident that comprehensive immigration reform will begin progressing through Congress soon, once health care legislation has moved off the table.
The entire group of bishops met with Senate Democrats, the Congressional Hispanic Conference, which represents Republicans, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which represents Democrats. Archbishop Gomez also met separately with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Other bishops in the delegation included Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, N.M.; Bishop James A. Tamayo of Laredo, Texas; Bishop Carlos A. Sevilla of Yakima, Wash.; and Auxiliary Bishop Edgar Moreira da Cunha of Newark, N.J.
Besides health care and immigration reform, the bishops' agenda for the meetings included encouraging a national housing policy that helps low-income families, the elderly and other vulnerable people and education programs that help keep students in school, including a voucher program that includes those in Catholic schools.