Anti-immigrant rhetoric was at an all-time high during the midterm election season, and now as the 2024 presidential election gathers momentum, it is urgent to note how it fosters violence against immigrant communities and creates a chilling effect.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott continues busing immigrants to sanctuary cities from Texas, including new arrivals in Philadelphia, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis defends his practice of sending immigrants to Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, it’s clear that anti-immigrant rhetoric is impacting the lives and wellbeing of immigrants.
Research shows this rhetoric affects health, keeping immigrants from pursuing health care benefits and further isolating them. What is clearly missing are the voices of immigrants themselves and respect for the humanity and decency of the treatment of immigrants, particularly as it concerns their health care access and outcomes.
The United States has an estimated population of 11 million undocumented individuals, with more than half between the ages of 25 to 44. And while only 9% of the undocumented population is over the age of 55, a large percentage of this population will continue to age into their senior years within the next decade.
Nationally, a recent study reports the Latinx undocumented older adult population in the U.S. will increase by nearly 700%. The Migration Policy Institute reports that Mexico is the primary country of origin of undocumented individuals of all ages at 48%, with El Salvador and Guatemala both at 7%, India at 5%, and Honduras at 4%.
According to a 2020 study from Rush University Medical Center, the undocumented older adult population within the state of Illinois will grow more than 13-fold by 2030 to more than 55,000.
Although undocumented individuals from Mexico comprise the largest population of undocumented older adults, according to the Rush study, the next highest populations are from Eastern Europe, East and Southeast Asia, and Africa.
I witnessed firsthand the difficult process of health access for migrants while completing a Master of Social Work at Loyola University Chicago in May 2014. I worked with clients throughout the migration cycle through internships at Heartland Alliance, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and the former Loyola Center for Migration and International Social Work.
In shelters for migrants throughout Mexico, some were living as undocumented in the United States and deported to Mexico, others were in transit north. Some shelters housed hundreds of migrants, others fewer. The smallest shelter in Mexico City housed ten migrants who experienced extreme trauma or violence, and needed a smaller, supportive environment to heal, physically and emotionally.
I witnessed that once in the U.S., many immigrants cannot access the health care they need. This reality reinforces the results of a new study that shows immigrants contribute significantly more to the health care system than they reap.
Undocumented individuals are a huge and vital part of the U.S. workforce, and millions of other jobs and the livelihood of all Americans are dependent on that workforce. According to the Center for American Progress, more than 7 million undocumented individuals are working in the U.S. in all areas of work.
Many undocumented individuals work in farms, construction, maintenance, and factory labor. They also comprise a substantial portion of the care economy – including childcare workers, personal care aides, and home health aides– in addition to those individuals who work in the formal economy through work permits provided through DACA, including doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers, and business leaders. Nearly half of the 1.2 million DACA recipients are essential workers, with almost 62,000 of those being essential health care workers.
Undocumented individuals do not have access to many of the services that older adults usually depend on to age well in their homes and in their communities—such as home and community-based care like home health and homemaker services, social welfare, home modification, nutrition programs, and subsidized housing.
An estimated two-thirds of the undocumented population, and an even larger portion of the undocumented older adults have resided in the United States for decades, and are aging into their senior years. Many of these seniors have worked for decades, some enduring abuse and poverty wages by businesses that exploit immigrants for cheap labor. And now, with no safety net, they face potentially grim futures.
If and when their health fails, many lack access to resources to stay out of the hospital. For example, in Illinois, even with the expansion of health care to undocumented individuals through the Health Benefits for Immigrant Seniors and the Health Benefits for Immigrant Adults plans, these services are not covered under those plans.
Undocumented older adults are blocked from public benefits and most public insurance plans (which block access to the services covered by insurance), including acute care needs like hospitalizations and nursing home care.
The states of Illinois, California, and Oregon have made progress to expand health care access, but even these programs fall short of fully addressing the complexities of aging care services.
Policymakers, administrators, nonprofit leaders, and funders need to take decisive action to honor the humanity in everyone. It is necessary to treat all people, regardless of immigration status, with compassion and affirm their right to age well within their communities and their families.
Padraic Stanley is a social worker.
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