A Roadmap for Healthy Citizenship

President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks at the House Democratic Issues Conference in Lansdowne, Va., Thursday, Feb. 7, 2
President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks at the House Democratic Issues Conference in Lansdowne, Va., Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Washington is finally serious about fixing our broken and outdated immigration system.

In the span of 48 hours, we saw not one, but two serious immigration reform proposals, one from a bi-partisan group of Senators, and the other from President Obama. Although long overdue, this moment is welcomed by all of us who have seen firsthand how our current immigration system breaks apart families, communities and businesses.

Both proposals released last week include a roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million aspiring citizens who live here and are our family, friends, and neighbors. However, while the president's proposal includes solutions to fix our outdated immigration system, it offers no solution for aspiring Americans' need for food or affordable health care.

Excluding aspiring citizens from affordable health care contradicts the hard-fought goals and values of the president's signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act. It also sends mixed signals about our commitment to welcome these individuals as Americans, because lack of food and affordable health care will impact their ability to learn, to work, to provide for their family, and to contribute to their communities. Moreover, exclusion will lead to unintended consequences, including deterring eligible individuals in immigrant families from enrolling in affordable health care, as well as increased health care costs -- through health insurance premiums and uncompensated care costs -- for all of us.

To ensure immigrants are truly welcomed and fully integrated, these aspiring Americans should have both the responsibilities as well as the rights that citizenship entails. Denying an individual's access to affordable health care and food, and excluding their families from programs for which they will be paying federal taxes to support, contradicts our basic value of fairness.

In his immigration speech last week, President Obama said that immigration reform wasn't about policies, but people. These are the people who harvest our food, care for our children and aging parents, and clean our homes. They are our future doctors, organizers, writers, and engineers. He spoke eloquently about how these individuals are already contributing members of the community. "They're looking out for their families. They're looking out for their neighbors. They're woven into the fabric of our lives." And he reminded the country of our own immigrant roots, and that immigration cannot be a matter of 'us' versus 'them.' In fact, he said, most of us, at some point, were 'them.'

Many of "us" want to ensure that immigrants have the same access to affordable health care and food that we all should have and to not continue to treat immigrants as the "them" through explicit exclusions from basic necessities.

Last week, more than 160 people from a broad range of faith, labor, anti-poverty, health care, and immigrant organizations came together to strategize about how we can ensure that immigration reform proposals present a bold new vision for recognizing the contributions of the 11 million aspiring citizens, who have been Americans in every way but one. These organizations and individuals are committed to making sure that individuals in need in the U.S. have access to food and affordable health care.

We look forward to working with members of Congress and the president on this critical issue in the weeks and months to come.

It's now up to us -- as immigrants, community members, and citizens -- to push for immigration reform legislation that represents our true values of what it means to be American and creates a clear and direct road to citizenship. This will ensure that everyone has the opportunity to fulfill the American dream.