Our lawmakers are again behaving badly in public over illegal immigration. This time the tussle threatens passage of health care reform legislation. The latest contentious debate, as the New York Times reports, revolves around a slew of issues.

Among these is whether unauthorized migrants — who will be subject to the mandate that all purchase health insurance — will be allowed to use their own money to buy coverage from the public exchanges. Another is whether uninsured legal immigrants — who must also buy their own insurance — will be barred from insurance-premium subsidies until long waiting periods have elapsed. Still another is whether “mixed-status” families (consisting of citizens and legal and illegal immigrants) will be ineligible for subsidies because the formula for calculating their household expenses will disregard the living costs of the undocumented in their midst.

If these proposals become law, they will be hideous examples of taking the immigration scalpel to the public’s nose just to spite its face. The Senate and Congress would be wise instead to heed a lesson in morality and pragmatism from pronouncements last month in the Vatican and the White House honoring a famous immigrant. On October 11, Pope Benedict XVI canonized a priest, Damien de Veuster, who immigrated from Belgium to what is now the 50th U.S. state. Two days earlier President Obama, a native of Hawaii, applauded the forthcoming sainthood of St. Damien of Molokai with these words:

Fr. Damien has . . . earned a special place in the hearts of Hawaiians. I recall many stories from my youth about his tireless work there to care for those suffering from leprosy who had been cast out. Following in the steps of Jesus’ ministry to the lepers, Fr. Damien challenged the stigmatizing effects of disease, giving voice to the voiceless and ultimately sacrificing his own life to bring dignity to so many.

In our own time as millions around the world suffer from disease, especially the pandemic of HIV/AIDS, we should draw on the example of Fr. Damien’s resolve in answering the urgent call to heal and care for the sick.

Not since the unrepentant Lou Dobbs tried to tie illegal immigration to the false claim by his show’s reporter, Christine Romans, of a huge increase in recorded cases of leprosy (7,000 in a recent three-year period, she claimed, although the actual figure was 434) has the disfiguring malady known as Hansen’s disease received such public attention. (Truth be told, this ancient disease persists in its power to instill irrational fear, although its incidence is extremely low and modern medicine found a cure in the 1930s.)

Still, conflating and inflating irrational fears of immigrants and of disease may do what threats of death panels and pulling the plug on grandma could not do. The cynical opponents of health care for all and of comprehensive immigration reform must be silently smirking as they paraphrase H. L. Mencken’s defamatory coinage, “No one ever failed to kill health care by underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” The pragmatic and compassionate among us, however, must remind the public and our lawmakers that pandemics scoff at national boundaries and that the “urgent call to heal and care for the sick” will be heard sooner (while preventative care can keep costs low) or later (when those in extremis without coverage drive up costs for all, as they now do, in emergency rooms across America).