LA Immigrants Are Being Scared Away From The Health Care They Need

Dennis Baik at a community clinic in Koreatown where he gets his cholesterol medication. (Photo by Alyssa Jeong Perry)

The Trump administration is in the last stages of deciding whether to update an immigration policy known as the "public charge rule." The term "public charge" refers to a person who has used public benefits like Medi-Cal, food stamps or low-income housing vouchers.

In leaked versions of earlier drafts, which surfaced almost a year ago, immigration officials could deny a green card or possibly deport immigrants if they or their U.S.-born child were deemed a public charge.

A final version of the proposal announced this fall would restrict immigrants from getting a green card if they themselves used public benefits; their U.S.-born children would not be affected.

Confusion about the pending action has immigrant communities wondering if they should drop their healthcare.

Dennis Baik wanted to ensure his two sons were able to get the best education so, in 2000, he migrated with his wife and sons to the U.S. from South Korea.

Now almost 20 years later, the 61-year-old has settled into life in Los Angeles. He works in a toy store but he still is in the country without any documentation.

Baik says he has attempted to get a green card but hasn't been able to. But as he gets older, his health has declined. He routinely has to go the doctor every three months to get medication for his high cholesterol.

But lately what he's been reading in the news has frightened him. Like most immigrants who don't use English as their first language, Baik relies on news in his own language: Korean.

"I search the internet for the public charge," he said. "I read every single article from the local Korean newspapers to get more information on the public charge."

Baik depends on healthcare assistance to get his cholesterol medication and pay for his doctor appointments. So when he heard about the public charge he started to worry.

"My understanding is that if I get government assistance, I can't get permanent resident status," he said. "My wife thinks we should stop getting help and end it right away."

But Baik wouldn't be affected by the current proposed version of the rule because he's enrolled in My Health LA, LA's County's free health program for unauthorized immigrants.

The proposed rule would jeopardize an immigrant's chances of getting a green card only if they used federal benefits such as Medi-cal, California's version of the Medicaid program.

These days, there are many immigrants like Baik who are concerned that if they are enrolled in any government assistance program that provides health care it will jeopardize their chances of getting a green card.

Kheir, the Koreatown clinic where Baik is a patient, works with the local Korean media by sending out press releases and informational packets about the latest version of the public charge proposal.

Kheir spokeswoman Jae Hee Lee said a lot of confusion around the public charge stems from an earlier version of the proposal that said immigrants could be flagged for deportation or denied a green card if their U.S. born children used any public benefits.

Community health clinics around the L.A. area have reported an increase in calls from concerned patients.

The Community Clinic Association of Los Angeles County — which represents 65 health centers and clinics throughout the region — has heard from many patients scared by misleading or inaccurate information from media reports or heard in their communities, according to Courtney Powers, the association's director of government and external affairs.

"We have seen many of our clinics reporting that patients are not wanting to access health care services because of the fear and anxiety," added Powers.

Inaccurate reporting among foreign-language and ethnic media outlets could be attributed to the fact that their newsrooms are small so they may not have the resources of larger news entities, said media ethicist Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute.

"If you are reporting the story [public charge], the liability is that you don't have a reporter in Washington [DC] at the agency that's making the policy," McBride said. "So you're relying on other sources of information."

However McBride believes that these smaller outlets have an advantage because their reporters and staff come from the communities they serve.

"The asset is the ability to hear what the questions are and listen more closely," McBride said. "And then go out and specifically find the answers to those questions rather than sending your reporter to Washington to report the whole story."

That's something that Dennis Baik recognizes. While he's relieved to find out that he doesn't have to drop out of My Health LA, he believes the media "need[s] to explain more clearly about the programs, then I wouldn't have worried so much."