Anxious immigrants avoiding medical care
LOS ANGELES — They need to prepare, they say, in case they never come back.
Patients at the St. John’s Well Child & Family Center in South Los Angeles have recently started asking for copies of their medical records. Some request extra medicine from their doctors, taking home as much as they’ll supply.
“They want to have a stockpile,” clinic Chief Executive Jim Mangia said. “There’s this tremendous fear that on their way to take their kids to school, or on their way to the clinic, or on their way into the store, they’re going to get picked up and deported.”
Health care providers say President Donald Trump’s aggressive moves against illegal immigration are posing risks to the health of many Californians, as immigrant parents cancel medical appointments or wait until the last minute to seek treatment.
Others are asking to leave public programs because they’re worried their personal information will end up with the federal government. Even more seem to be feeling anxious or depressed because of possible raids, prompting some providers to offer special training to deal with such mental health issues among immigrants.
And the recent anxiety has extended beyond those in the country without legal authorization, health advocates say.
St. John’s, which treats more immigrants who lack legal status than any clinic in the state, often hears from patients who are afraid they’ll run into federal authorities on their way to the clinic, employees said. In the last several months, staff members have practiced forming a human chain around the facility, in case immigration agents do show up one day.
Health advocates say immigrants’ reluctance to seek medical care is a step backward for a state that spent years encouraging people to sign up for health insurance and make regular doctor visits under the Affordable Care Act.
Mayra Alvarez, head of the L.A.-based advocacy group the Children’s Partnership, recalled a story of a Mexican-American boy who asked his mother if he was going to be deported, though he was born in the United States.
“It’s sort of this blurred line between undocumented and documented,” Alvarez said. “All you need is one story in our community, one example of a pickup, a deportation, and it spreads like wildfire.”
The patient calls started shortly after Trump took office, said Dulce Valenzuela, who works the front desk at St. John’s.
“Their No. 1 concern was, ‘If I go in, is my information going to be given to him?’ ” she said.
Though Valenzuela reassures patients they’ll be safe, St. John’s has experienced an 8 percent drop in visits among patients lacking legal status across the clinic’s 14 Southern California sites, Mangia said.
Immigration agents are prohibited under federal law from entering health care facilities. Still, staff members were recently trained in how to read an Immigration and Customs Enforcement warrant and also taught to link arms outside the clinic door to block agents from entering.
“This is L.A.,” said Mario Chavez, the clinic’s director of government affairs. “If ICE really wanted to scare people, they could just do raids here.”
The Trump administration has said it will target any of the 11 million people in the country illegally.
A man was picked up after he dropped off his daughter at school. Another was detained on his front lawn. A young girl was stopped by agents on her way to have gallbladder surgery and then followed to the hospital.
For years, health advocates had been pushing Californians, including immigrants who lack legal status, to go to the doctor. Regular visits could catch problems that would otherwise result in big emergency room bills, they said. Now some worry those medical issues are going unaddressed again.
A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that some patients were making fewer appointments for checkups for their kids, and some expectant mothers are skipping prenatal care.
Edgar Aguilar, program manager of Dignity Health’s Community Health Initiative of Kern County, said workers trying to enroll more people noticed a drop last year in how many people would open the door when they came around.
“They could tell they were there, but the door remained closed,” he said.
Mario Chavez, director of government affairs at St. John’s Well Child & Family Center in Los Angeles, talks with employees about the clinic’s plan if ICE shows up. The clinic is the biggest provider of health care for undocumented immigrants in the...