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Immigration policies halted as coronavirus cases rise. Will it encourage people to seek help?

Kristian Hernandez

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Mar 23, 2020

Fewer people have sought medical help have been showing up in the past few weeks to Clinica Virgen de Guadalupe, a clinic that primarily serves the uninsured Latin-American community in northeast Fort Worth.

“I think most of the Latino community has been following the same guidelines as everyone else,” said Ricardo Oro, a spokesman for the clinic. “People are staying at home and practicing social distancing.

“They’re sometimes afraid of going to hospitals or emergency care providers because they don’t speak good English or don’t have insurance but that’s why we’re here, to help them find the care they need.”

But even before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, community health centers such as this one have been bracing for a decrease in patients because of a new policy aimed at discouraging immigrants from seeking public benefits.

The rule was put into effect in February by the Trump Administration and it has already had a chilling effect on immigrants dropping out of public benefits and seeking medical help, according to reports.

But with the rise of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., the Trump administration has halted the policy and some immigration and customs enforcement activities, citing public health concerns, but it might be too little too late, according to immigration advocates.

‘You should have no fear’

On March 13, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services published an alert encouraging all those, “including aliens with symptoms that resemble COVID-19,” to seek medical treatment or preventative services.

“To address the possibility that some aliens impacted by COVID-19 may be hesitant to seek necessary medical treatment or preventive services, USCIS will neither consider testing, treatment, nor preventative care (including vaccines, if a vaccine becomes available) related to COVID-19 as part of a public charge inadmissibility determination,” read the alert.

On Wednesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said hospitals across the state are preparing for a rise in cases and echoed the administration’s alert, urging immigrants to get tested regardless of their legal status.

“We want everyone who needs to be tested to get tested,” he said. “You should have no fear about that whatsoever.” He said those who go to the doctor will only be asked medical questions.

Oro said that’s not usually the case at hospitals where patients are often given forms asking for Social Security numbers or proof of insurance. “People are usually fearful of filling these forms,” Oro said. “They don’t understand that the information will not be used against them.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services began the “public charge” rule on Feb. 23. It established a test to determine whether an immigrant is likely to end up relying on public benefits in the future. It applies to those applying to enter the U.S., to extend their visa or seeking to convert their temporary immigration status into a green card.

Trump justified the rule as a means of ensuring that immigrants are “financially self-sufficient” and has argued it will “protect benefits for American citizens.”

“I am tired of seeing our taxpayer paying for people to come into the country and immediately go onto welfare and various other things,” Trump said when announcing the rule. “So I think we’re doing it right.”

Immigrants aren’t the only ones affected

Most research into immigrants’ benefits usage finds that individual immigrants use public benefits at lower rates and at lower levels than native-born Americans, according to a 2018 report by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C,. think thank that combines ideas from both the Republican and Democratic parties to “promote health, security and opportunity for all Americans.”

Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, argued the public charge rule is a blatant attack against immigrants, especially low-income families who are often fleeing their countries out of fear for their lives.

LULAC, the nation’s oldest and largest Latino civil rights organization, was established in 1929 in Corpus Christi largely by Hispanic veterans of World War I who sought to end ethnic discrimination against Latinos in the United States.

“Under the Trump Administration, USCIS has become the enforcer of cruel, heartless and xenophobic policies that have disproportionately punished Latino families,” Garcia wrote in a news release.

A 2018 study by George Washington University found that as many as half million immigrants, regardless of race or immigration status, could be affected in the first year of the policy. This loss in patients translates to a loss in revenue between $346 million and $624 million for local clinics, hospitals and public health agencies, according to the study.

ICE operations halted

On Friday, LULAC asked the federal government to ensure Latino communities affected by the coronavirus pandemic are not left out of any emergency relief being negotiated. They also asked ICE to suspend raids, family separations, the deportation of DACA recipients and to halt all immigration hearings.

On Thursday ICE issued a statement that it would temporarily adjust its enforcement and removal operations to focus on public safety risks. The agency also emphasized that it would continue its “sensitive location policy” and would not carry out enforcement operations at or near health care facilities during the COVID-19 crisis, except in the most extraordinary of circumstances.

“Individuals should not avoid seeking medical care because they fear civil immigration enforcement,” read the statement.

Oro, at Clinica Virgen de Guadalupe in Fort Worth, said patients have been calling the helpline and inquiring on Facebook about places to get tested after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Those who reach out or come into their office with possible symptoms of COVID-19 are being sent to hospitals or emergency care facilities.

“This is not the time for fear,” Oro said. “It’s time to seek help and do our part in stopping this virus from spreading any further.”

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