Grassroots Change
facebook twitter instagram

Immigration and Health Care: A Public Health Perspective

January 5, 2016

By Lena Bilik

cc Steve Rhodes
cc Steve Rhodes

One of the most underserved populations in the United States is the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants. Undocumented immigrants face not only the threat of deportation, but may also experience language and cultural barriers and difficulty securing work and housing. Their legal status makes undocumented immigrants one of the most vulnerable populations in the US and creates many health challenges.

Undocumented immigrants are often excluded from key social services, including health care. With the exception of emergency care under Medicaid, undocumented immigrants have no real access to healthcare in this country. The lack of care for this group leaves millions of people at increased risk for poor physical and psychological health.

In recent years, undocumented immigrants have broken the silence and spoken out about the need for comprehensive immigration reform. The grassroots movement has been successful in some federal policy changes including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Another issue important to this growing movement is healthcare access. Advocates are successfully framing this as a public health issue and working to provide healthcare for the 11 million undocumented immigrants.

With limited options, many undocumented immigrants turn to community health clinics and nonprofit organizations for health care. Puentes De Salud, an inspiring health center in South Philadelphia focuses on providing health care to people without insurance (or green cards) for low costs. Most of the medical staff are volunteers, medical students and community members, who charge as little as $20 for primary care services.

Dr. Steve Larson, a volunteer and a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pennsylvania told the New York Times, “This is an underground health system.” Community clinics and their volunteers have the potential to be the base for a national grassroots movement that could place pressure on elected officials to protect public health by extending health care access to undocumented immigrants and their children.

In California, the immigrants’ rights movement is alive and well. Community clinics and nonprofits are increasing equitable healthcare access. California’s network of community clinics that serve low-income communities, including undocumented immigrants, are abundant. About 75% of California’s undocumented immigrant population live within two miles of a health clinic, although access varies across counties. And now this issue has grown beyond grassroots and community action and begun to see progress in local policy.

In the Bay Area, Healthy San Francisco covers people living under the federal poverty line regardless of their immigration status. In September 2015, Contra Costa County joined 46 other California counties (out of a total of 58) that provide non-emergency care to immigrants who entered the country illegally. These measures do not provide full scope insurance, but do provide preventive care. “[This policy] will mean better health care access for all, improved public health, lower cost to our health care system, and it’s just the right thing to do,” said Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia in an interview with NPR.

The movement has reached the state level in California. In June 2015, the state legislature announced a budget deal to provide public healthcare coverage for undocumented children from low-income families as early as May 2016.

Communities across the country are redefining community health to include undocumented immigrants, one of the nation’s most vulnerable populations. Local governments are listening to activists by setting inclusive policies. The passion is there for a strong immigrants’ rights movement that addresses healthcare access as an issue of public health and safety. The movement extends beyond community clinics and organizations. Over the years, the immigrants’ rights movement has recruited powerful allies that have used their power to help the cause, including civil rights groups, unions, LGBTQ advocates, environmental groups and more. It’s time to expand our definition of community health and wellbeing to include everyone in our communities.


Get involved by connecting with these organizations:

Black Alliance for Just Immigration
Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights
National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights
New York Immigration Coalition
Surgery Without Medical Insurance
Undocumented Patients
Undocumented and Uninsured


Ensuring Health Access and Equity for Immigrant Asian American and Pacific Islander Women, National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum
Immigration Reform: Basic Justice, Public Health Consequences, Huffington Post
Immigration Reform And The South Asian Community: Myths And Realities, South Asian Americans Leading Together
Undocumented Immigrants Face Limited Health Care Options, Huffington Post

Lena Bilik is a Grassroots Change intern. She graduated from Skidmore College in 2014 with a degree in English. She has interned for multiple nonprofit organizations in New York State, helping them in their work with labor rights, fracking, fair elections, health care access and living wage. She is looking forward to working more in the realm of public health to help build effective grassroots movements for change.