Valley Voices

Undocumented, she feared seeing a doctor. Then she lost vision in one eye

ICE raids on the San Joaquin Valley’s ag industry impacts on the Valley's economy, which relies on cheap, immigrant farm worker labor.
ICE raids on the San Joaquin Valley’s ag industry impacts on the Valley's economy, which relies on cheap, immigrant farm worker labor.

As someone who grew up in Fresno and spent the last five years registering voters here with Mi Familia Vota, a national civic engagement organization, I have seen close-up how the entire community is harmed when fear prevents undocumented immigrants from getting health care they need and deserve.

Hard-working, tax-paying immigrants are afraid that if they go to the doctor they may be vulnerable to deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or subject to the pending public charge rule that would prohibit many from receiving benefits, such as food assistance programs — while they contribute to the well-being and stability of our economy with their dedicated labor.

Even before the threat of the Trump administration’s ICE raids and “public charge,” fear has caused immigrants to go without essential preventive care that has devastated their health and had ripple effects on those around them. Take, for example, the mother of a colleague of mine who migrated to the U.S. 15 years ago. To help pay the family bills, she began by working in the fields and cleaning houses — jobs that others didn’t want. Eventually, she was able to open her own advertising business and even employed U.S. citizens.

sam mol
Samuel Molina of La Familia Vota Fresno Bee file

But when she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, she was afraid of steep medical bills or even to seek basic care because she was undocumented. She remained untreated, her symptoms worsened, and a retinal detachment cost her vision in one eye. Soon, she developed chronic kidney disease as well.

Though she now has Medi-Cal coverage, her inability to get preventative care has robbed her of her health, put a strain on her family and threatened the business she built — as well as the health and job security of her employees.

Stories like hers aren’t unusual. It’s also common for undocumented community members who are suffering without preventative care to use costly hospital emergency room services as a last resort. Doctors and nurses in the ER are caring for everything from chronic conditions to the flu.

Here in the Central Valley we have community health centers, such as Planned Parenthood, that provide affordable preventive services — including cancer screenings and management of chronic illnesses like diabetes — for anyone who comes in, regardless of their immigration status. However, even though these centers have staff trained to protect immigrants’ rights, it’s clear that the heightened climate of fear still prevents people from seeking basic health services.

On the Fresno County immigrants’ roundtable that I serve on with other community partners, including Planned Parenthood, we’ve had many reports of people who won’t even attend free Latino health fairs for information because they are so fearful of being monitored and deported or having their families separated.

And, contrary to the myth, these immigrants are paying their share in taxes.

The fact is, undocumented immigrants in the U.S. pay taxes for many benefits they don’t even receive. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, they contribute an average of $11.7 billion a year to state and local taxes, with an average contribution of 8 percent of their income. That includes hundreds of millions of dollars annually in California alone.

It makes no sense to block their access to cost-effective preventative health services, which promote healthy communities for everyone. Intimidating undocumented people from taking care of themselves is unjust, dehumanizing and unsafe — for all of us. That’s why we need to elect public officials who care about the entire community, not just part of it. In the presidential primary elections in March 2020, we have the opportunity to also vote for local leaders who believe that everyone who lives here has the right to decent health care. We have the chance to change this climate of fear.

Immigrants are a key part of what makes our economy work. They are our neighbors, service providers, parents of our children’s classmates and a vital part of the fabric of our communities. They should not be afraid to protect their own health and the health of their families.

Samuel Molina of Fresno is the California state director for Mi Familia Vota.