The latest demographic shock in New Orleans, reports the New York Times, is a boom in babies born to "Latino immigrant workers, both legal and illegal, who flocked to the city to toil on its reconstruction." The baby boom has had a profound impact on the population, the health care system, and the sustainability of existing immigration law in greater New Orleans.Historically, the racial composition of New Orleans was divided strictly between blacks and whites. The exigencies of post-Katrina reconstruction have brought an influx of Hispanic residents. This population accounts for many of the new births in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes.
This forum has already lamented the shabby shape of greater New Orleans' health care system after Katrina. A baby boom under these circumstances necessarily strains the metropolitan area's depleted health care resources. The system strains even further given the financial constraints on illegal immigrants and the typically low or nonexistent levels of prenatal care received by mothers in this class:
The boomlet of Latino babies in New Orleans poses particular challenges. Nonemergency Medicaid is not available to illegal immigrants or even to legal immigrants who have been in the country less than five years. Virtually none of the immigrant mothers-to-be have private insurance. They are mostly poor. Many fear being deported.New Orleans is rapidly assuming a new cultural identity that has a strong Hispanic component. Classic street foods such as beignets and chicory coffee are yielding in favor of tamales. The changing culture of New Orleans poses special problems for the law. Restrictions on Medicaid, coupled with the general lack of health care resources, funnels pregnant women toward emergency rooms. This variation on an unfortunate theme within the American health care system -- treating emergency rooms, which should be caregivers of last resort, as the primary or even exclusive source of health care for vulnerable populations -- exacts an exceptionally steep toll from New Orleans' most recent wave of newcomers.
Workers of Mexican and Central American origin are vital to the reconstruction of New Orleans. Excluding these immigrants from Medicaid is backfiring. If anything, the existing legal framework for health care approach exacerbates the health care burden that Orleans and Jefferson Parishes must shoulder. The immigrant babies of New Orleans are American citizens. More important, they are human beings. Whatever the failings of the legal and health care systems before Katrina, those systems have a renewed opportunity -- and, indeed, a significant obligation -- to serve the most vulnerable populations of greater New Orleans.