What executive actions on immigration mean for health care in California

On Wednesday, Dec. 17, New America Media and Asian Americans Advancing Justice – LA (AAAJ-LA) hosted a media briefing to discuss President Obama’s recent executive action on immigration and the stakes for health care coverage in California’s diverse communities, including Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs).

“America has always been a nation of immigrants,” said AAAJ – LA Health Access Project Director Doreena Wong. “But no community is more immigrant than AAPI communities.”

Nearly 1 in 3 immigrants in the state of California are either Asian or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, Wong said. At least 59 percent are foreign born, which to many people’s surprise, is higher than the Latino population, at 40 percent. About 16,000 of those combined are estimated to have undocumented status.

Filipinos are also said to have the largest undocumented population in California, according to Wong.

The President’s executive action set to activate next year will grant at least 5 million eligible undocumented immigrants protection from deportation for three years, expand the existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, provide work authorization for foreign employees and their families, as well as extend deferral for parents of legal citizens and lawful permanent residents (LPRs) who have lived in the States for at least 5 years.

“This is a pivotal moment for our country, who has not seen immigration reform of this scale in a while, since the Bush and Reagan administrations,” said Marielena Hincapié, Executive Director of the National Immigration Law Center. “Those presidents also used their significant and legal executive authority to protect immigrants and their families in the US. Immigrants play an important role, a role in shaping the future of our country.”

California, a state largely made up of immigrants, is significantly affected by Obama’s executive action. Around 30 percent of those it impacts live in California, Hincapié said. That estimates to roughly 1.6 million individuals who will benefit from the temporary relief.

1.6 million eligible undocumented immigrants in California will not only be temporarily spared from deportation, but will also qualify for other benefits many immigrants do not know about—including and most importantly health care.

“California has a long history of covering lawfully present immigrants through the Medi-Cal program,” said Ronald Coleman, Government Affairs Manager of the California Immigrant Policy Center. “Though we are not sure of the exact numbers yet, immigrants who qualify through the President’s program extensions, a sizeable chunk, should also be eligible for Medi-Cal.”

Qualified applicants must have an income below 138% of the federal poverty level, and would be eligible for health care coverage through Medi-Cal, as opposed to citizens who can apply for state-based markets (such as Covered California, which recently ended its enrollment period for coverage starting January 2015).

Coleman also pointed out that administrative relief does not cover everyone; for instance, LGBT immigrants and those not connected to legal citizens or LPRs.

“We hope to see immigration conversations move forward in Congress and create more flexible policies that affect everyone,” he said.  “We will continue to focus on making sure everyone in the state of California can receive coverage and have access to help, resources, and economic mobility.”

A bill in the Senate has already been proposed to expand the state Medi-Cal program to everyone, not just individuals who qualify for Obama’s executive action. The bill would also allow undocumented and DACA-approved immigrants to take part in the health care market exchange, though government officials including the Brown administration are still trying to configure options for possible legislation.

“Accidents happen unexpectedly. We don’t want immigrants to even have to question whether they should seek medical attention,” said Michelle Yoon, an undocumented immigrant and development assistant with the California Immigrant Policy Center. “It is important to give all Californians, regardless of status, proper access to healthcare.”

Unfortunately, much of the AAPI community remains in the dark about federal programs such as DACA and the Affordable Care Act and the benefits these offer to immigrants, such as health care.

“People need to know that by applying for health care, information is kept safe and confidential,” said Wong. “There is no need to fear. There are resources and education out there.”

Asian Americans Advancing Justice – LA, for instance, offers legal counseling and workshops for immigrants seeking assistance in applying for programs and other services. It also has an accessible multilingual hotline for applicants to ask questions and raise concerns in a secure manner.

“We want people to feel comfortable coming forward, without fear of disclosing their immigration status,” Ms. Wong added.

Together with the National Immigration Law Center, AAAJ – LA, the California Immigrant Policy Center, and other partnering organizations, the California government encourages everyone to apply for health coverage. Information provided is kept secure and used only to determine eligibility for health programs like Covered California or Medi-Cal.

“California is a vanguard in its pro-immigrant approach to executive action, with reference to the Affordable Care Act,” Hincapié said. “There is power in numbers—the more people who come forward to apply, the more successful it will be for immigration reform to unfold.”

“We are excited to see more communities step out of the shadows,” remarked Wong. “This action by President Obama for temporary relief will certainly help families to stay safe, healthy, and united.”

“Undocumented immigrants contribute to and affect California every day,” concluded Imelda Plascencia, who works with Health Initiatives at the Dream Resource Center of the UCLA Labor Center, and wants to reshape the negative cultural stigma of “good vs. bad” immigrants, especially in using health services. “It is so important that California also takes care of us.”


(OCIE December 19-25, 2014 Sec. A pg.1)

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