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Deportation Fears Hurt American Health System

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer looking on during a raid.

Recent policy changes from the White House regarding immigration are likely to play a role in worsening non-citizens’ health — and worsening the health of Americans’ pocketbooks — according to a professor in the Dornsife School of Public Health.

Alex Ortega, PhD, whose research focuses on Latino and immigrant communities, believes that new immigration policies that have increased the threat of deportation for non-U.S. citizens will not just hurt their health, but could negatively affect all Americans, too.

“The recent rhetoric from the executive branch creating fear around immigrants from Mexico will only serve as a barrier for immigrants trying to get insurance and necessary health services,” Ortega explained. “When care is not covered by insurance or paid out-of-pocket, then those costs are typically trickled down to local taxpayers who cover the costs of safety net care. It’s more cost-efficient, especially from a taxpayer perspective, for services to be covered by insurance, even if it is subsidized, rather than charity care.”

Latinos are a group that accounts for a large portion of undocumented immigrants in the United States (roughly 80 percent), along with non-citizens holding green cards. With that in mind, Ortega’s past research has shown that the more available health insurance has become for Latinos, the less likely they were to avoid preventive care. Preventive care can be as simple as a check-up or getting a minor issue examined.

“Delaying necessary medical care sometimes results in patients having a more, severe disease that is harder to treat and more expensive to manage,” Ortega said. “This all costs society in terms of loss in labor and costs to both the health care system and taxpayer. If people are not persuaded by the notion that health is a human right, then perhaps they can be jolted by the cost inefficiency in excluding undocumented immigrants from health care.”

So if non-citizens are more wary of going out and getting care before big problems arise, U.S. citizens are more likely to see an impact on their taxes.

The experience for immigrants in the health care system is already strained. Other research from Ortega published within the last year, showed that if parents of Latino children are non-citizens, they were 70 percent less likely than citizen parents to feel as if their doctors listened to them, and 65 percent less likely to feel they understand what their doctors are telling them.

Currently, the likelihood that undocumented immigrants — and even some with green cards —might seek preventive care, like going to a routine check-up, seems to be falling due to fears that interacting with the health care system will result in exposure for deportation. With reports that immigrants are cancelling food benefits and deciding against reporting sexual or domestic violence against them, it’s unsurprising that trips to the doctor are another thing being avoided.

The argument for the strict immigration and citizenship policies is one tied to national security and safety. But if immigrants are pushed to the fringe even more than they are now, Ortega feels that outcomes will get worse for them and end up costing the country, as a whole.

Instead, Ortega points out that immigrants could actually be a boon to the American health system. With an estimated 11–12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who generally skew younger and healthier as a population, Ortega has argued that including them in the federal healthcare marketplace would actually help offset costs from older and sicker American citizen patients. With younger and healthier patients added to the pools, premiums could improve as risks are mitigated.

“It just makes economic sense to include undocumented immigrants in the healthcare marketplace,” Ortega said. “If we want to make healthcare more affordable for everybody, that is a strategy that could help get us there.”

Media interested in speaking to Ortega should contact Frank Otto at fmo26@drexel.edu or 215-571-4244.

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