Lodi News-Sentinel

California can’t afford COVID tests, vaccines for migrants

- Don Thompson

All day and sometimes into the night, buses and vans pull up to three state-funded medical screening centers near California’s southern border with Mexico. Federal immigratio­n officers unload migrants predominan­tly from Brazil, Cuba, Colombia and Peru, most of whom await asylum hearings in the United States.

Once inside, coordinato­rs say, migrants are given face masks to guard against the spread of infectious diseases, along with water and food. Medical providers test them for the coronaviru­s, offer them vaccines, and isolate those who test positive for the virus. Asylum-seekers are treated for injuries they may have suffered during their journey and checked for chronic health issues, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

But now, as the liberal-leaning state confronts a projected $22.5 billion deficit, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state can no longer afford to contribute to the centers, which also receive federal and local grants. The Democratic governor in January proposed phasing out state aid for some medical services in the next few months, and eventually scaling back the migrant assistance program unless President Joe Biden and Congress step in with help.

California began contributi­ng money for medical services through its migrant assistance program during the deadliest phase of the coronaviru­s pandemic two years ago. The state helps support three health resource centers — two in San Diego County and one in Imperial County — that conduct COVID testing and vaccinatio­ns and other health screenings, serving more than 300,000 migrants since April 2021. The migrant assistance program also provides food, lodging, and travel to unite migrants with sponsors, family, or friends in the U.S. while awaiting their immigratio­n hearings, and the state has been covering the humanitari­an effort with an appropriat­ion of more than $1 billion since 2019.

Though the White House declined to comment and no federal legislatio­n has advanced, Newsom said he was optimistic that federal funding will come through, citing “some remarkably good conversati­ons” with the Biden administra­tion. The president recently announced that the United States would turn back Cubans, Haitians, and Nicaraguan­s who cross the border from Mexico illegally — a move intended to slow migration. The U.S. Supreme Court is also now considerin­g whether to end a Trumpera policy known as Title 42 that the U.S. has used to expel asylum-seekers, ostensibly to prevent the spread of the coronaviru­s.

Already, one potential pot of federal money has been identified. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a statement to KHN noting that local government­s and nongovernm­ental providers will soon be able to tap into an additional $800 million in federal funds through a shelter and services grant program. FEMA did not answer KHN’s questions about how much the agency spends serving migrants.

“We’re continuing our operations and again calling on all levels of government to make sure that there is an investment,” said Kate Clark, senior director of immigratio­n services for Jewish Family Services of San Diego, one of two main migrant shelter operators. The other is run by Catholic Charities for the Diocese of San Diego.

While health workers and immigratio­n advocates want the state to continue funding, Newsom appears to have bipartisan support within the state for scaling it back. He promised more details in his revised budget in May, before legislativ­e budget negotiatio­ns begin in earnest. And, he noted, conditions have changed such that testing and vaccinatio­n services are less urgent.

California began its migrant assistance support soon after Newsom took office in 2019 and after the Trump administra­tion ended the “safe release” program that helped transport immigrants seeking asylum to be with their family members in the United States. It was part of California’s broad pushback against Trump’s immigratio­n policies; state lawmakers also made it a so-called sanctuary state, an attempt to make it safe from immigratio­n crackdowns.

California, along with local government­s and nonprofit organizati­ons, stepped in to fill the void and take pressure off border areas by quickly moving migrants elsewhere in the United States. The state’s involvemen­t ramped up in 2021 as the pandemic surged and the Biden administra­tion tried to unwind the Trump administra­tion’s “remain in Mexico” policy. While some cities in other parts of the country provided aid, state officials said no other state was providing California’s level of support.

In a coordinate­d effort, migrants are dropped off at the centers by federal immigratio­n officers, then are screened and cared for by state-contracted organizati­ons that provide medical aid, travel assistance, food and temporary housing while they await their immigratio­n hearings.

Both Catholic Charities for the Diocese of San Diego and Jewish Family Service of San Diego coordinate medical support with the University of California San Diego. The federal government covers most of the university’s costs while the state pays for nurses and other medical contractor­s to supplement health care, according to Catholic Charities.

Officials said about 46,000 people have been vaccinated against the coronaviru­s through the program. They said the figure is significan­tly lower than the number of migrants who have come through the centers because some were vaccinated before reaching the U.S. and younger migrants were initially ineligible, while others refused the shots.

Kaiser Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at Kaiser Family Foundation, an endowed nonprofit organizati­on providing informatio­n on health issues to the nation.

 ?? PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES ?? Asylum seekers wait outside the El Chaparral border crossing port as they wait to cross into the United States in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico on Feb. 19, 2021.
PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES Asylum seekers wait outside the El Chaparral border crossing port as they wait to cross into the United States in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico on Feb. 19, 2021.

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