ENFORCEMENT CLIMATE CAUSING IMMIGRANTS TO FOREGO CARE
By Chris Lisinski
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, SEPT. 18, 2019.....Pediatrician Fiona Danaher recalled one case she worked where a young girl displayed clear signs of abuse from her mother but the father, an undocumented immigrant, begged caretakers not to report it to the state because of the chances he could be deported.
Ana Cristina Luna, behavioral health director at New Health Charlestown, spoke about a Central American woman she worked with who, despite experiencing a "lifetime of trauma," has withdrawn from seeking the treatment she needs because the woman feels the only way to avoid being separated from her children is to remain "invisible."
Their stories and several others came as part of a panel discussion Wednesday about the Safe Communities Act, a high-profile and stalled bill that would limit local police cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Speakers said because fears over enforcement can exacerbate physical and mental ailments or prevent people from seeking help, the bill also carries significant public health implications.
"As anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies are continuing to proliferate at the federal level, the public health implications of inaction on this bill are going to become increasingly evident to those of us on the front lines of patient care here in Massachusetts," Danaher said.
Wednesday's briefing followed the mold of an event earlier in the summer, where survivors of domestic violence shared similar fears that they could not go to the police or seek help without becoming entangled in immigration proceedings.
With the bill again held up on Beacon Hill, supporters have worked to cast it not just as a matter of immigration policy but as one vital to ensuring the well-being of residents and better cooperation with law enforcement regardless of documentation.
Some communities have sympathetic police departments and local leaders who work to promote inclusion, but activists said a statewide policy is needed to ensure consistency. Aisha James, a pediatrician and internist practicing in Everett, said doctors cannot reassure patients if doing so would be inaccurate.
"I can't tell them with confidence that it is safe for them to go to the police, that they are safe from being deported," she said. "If there was something universal, that'd be great, and then as physicians we could really be encouraging our patients to be seeking police support when they need it and calling 911 when they need it."
State Auditor Suzanne Bump's office flagged a related trend, writing in a report this month that immigrants who qualify for the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children program are less likely to apply because they fear it will lead to a change in their immigration status.
The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center estimated this month that there are about 185,000 undocumented immigrants currently residing in the state.
As of 2014, Danaher said, about 5 percent of children in Massachusetts were American citizens who had at least one parent or caretaker without legal immigration status. The risk of separation creates risks for depression, anxiety and other health problems, she said.
"We can and must do better to protect our children's well being," Danaher said. "Passing the Safe Communities Act is a crucial first step."
Luna said she had helped one client find primary care and support, but over the past 18 months, case workers have lost "any traction" as the woman's worries have grown. The woman thinks about deportation "every minute of her life," convinced that she will be separated from her children and then killed if she has to return to her original country.
"The only choice she has identified for herself is becoming invisible," Luna said. "Being invisible and not accessing health care and not leaving a paper trail of documentation for health care services means that she has a chance of staying here, and that, for her, is a chance of staying alive."
The bill's future remains uncertain. Last year, the Senate included similar language in its annual budget, but the House never took a final vote on the proposal and Gov. Charlie Baker has said he plans to veto it.
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