The global coronavirus pandemic has come roaring into the United States. With thousands of confirmed cases and more than one hundred deaths, the entire country is in a state of emergency as Americans grapple with the new realities of “social distancing.”
The point of all this is to limit the spread of the disease. But just avoiding each other isn’t enough — we also need to make sure anyone who needs care gets it as quickly as possible.
Pandemics make one thing perfectly clear: A society is only as healthy as its most vulnerable members.
If we can learn one thing from the pandemic, it’s that the United States must provide high-quality health care for all. And I mean all of us — including undocumented immigrants. In a pandemic, anything that discourages our immigrant communities from getting care is a public health threat.
For many undocumented families, like millions of others, the first major barrier is cost.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that all of their COVID-19 tests will be free. But this doesn’t mean the trip to the hospital is free. A trip to the ER or urgent care for a “free” coronavirus test can cost thousands of dollars.
This can be detrimental to families without insurance, and undocumented families are chronicly underinsured. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, four in ten undocumented immigrants have no insurance at all. Those who do often rely on state Medicaid programs, which the Trump administration is aggressively trying to undermine.
In a study I conducted with undocumented youth last year, I heard deeply troubling stories of families deciding whether to get help when faced with an illness. One person’s uninsured mother debated if she should get treatment during the H1N1 epidemic. She ended up in a coma.
Stories of medical deportations — patients being discharged to their countries of origin rather than their homes — have spread fear among the community.
As Congress tries to make COVID-19 treatment affordable for all, the Trump administration has put up a massive wall to prevent it. This wall isn’t on the border. It’s the administration’s Public Charge Rule, which can make immigrant families “inadmissible to the United States” if they seek or receive assistance from the U.S. government.
This was a cruel rule already. In a pandemic, when it can mean families avoiding testing or treatment, it’s unconscionable.
And don’t forget the community members currently incarcerated in ICE or CBP detention centers. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, detention centers were notorious for their inhumane conditions and poor hygienic practices, leading to deaths and human rights abuses.
Now these overcrowded facilities will become even more dangerous. “If coronavirus gets in here,” one Cuban asylum seeker told Mother Jones, “it’s going to be a massacre.”
Pandemics make one thing perfectly clear: A society is only as healthy as its most vulnerable members. If undocumented immigrants are at risk of infection or can’t seek treatment without fear of crushing debt or deportation, our nation’s health is at risk. And if our government is warehousing poor people in desperate conditions, the risk is even greater.
Congress must provide affordable health care, including COVID-19 testing, regardless of immigration or economic status. It must also guarantee safe conditions and high quality health care in detention centers, and even consider suspending all immigration enforcement operations. Guaranteeing these rights is essential — everyone’s health depends on it.
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