By Caroline Song

A new state law in Illinois that provides funding for undocumented immigrants to receive kidney transplants went into effect this past October. It may be the first law of its kind in the United States. There are currently 686 undocumented immigrants in Illinois enrolled in the state’s kidney dialysis program. Opponents worry that tax dollars spent on undocumented immigrants places an unfair burden on legal citizens and that the costs should instead go toward taxpayers. Even proponents of the new law have their reservations: many worry that immigrants from other states may try to take advantage of the new program in Illinois and inflate costs.

In 1980, the federal government passed measures to make it illegal for federal funds to be spent on undocumented immigrants except in cases of emergency care.

This meant that undocumented immigrants could only receive dialysis for kidney failure when complications sent them to an emergency room. Yet, kidney failure at any state could be considered an emergency, and by the time and individual lands in the emergency room, it could be too late to even consider a transplant. The new law is primarily motivated by a cost concern. A kidney transplant consists of a one-time fee of $100,000 and annual fees of $10,000-20,000 for immuno-suppressant medication, whereas dialysis treatments cost $60,000 per patient per year, for the rest of the patient’s life.

The change in legislation was prompted by hunger strikes and marches that took place throughout Illinois in protest of the possibly unethical practice of barring kidney transplants from undocumented immigrants, particularly those that had led their entire lives in the United States. Many were turned away from hospitals because transplant programs asked patients to prove that they had $80,000 in their bank account to cover the cost of anti-rejection medication for a few years. In other words, potential organ recipients were turned away not because of a shortage of available organs, but because they were deemed to not meet necessary financial requirements.

This Illinois law was introduced and passed with little debate or controversy. There is still some worry that individuals will begin to move to Illinois to take advantage of the program, leading to an increased burden on Illinois taxpayers and increased demand for organs in the state. However, the new law offers undocumented immigrants a chance to lead better lives and corrects for a current legal imbalance that allows undocumented workers to donate organs with ease but makes it quite difficult for those same individuals to receive them. Despite these advantages, Illinois will still face the issue of doling out a finite resource; but, if the law is carried out properly, it may serve as a model that other states in the country can seek to emulate in regard to the issue of organ transplantation and undocumented immigrants.

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