They got New Yorkers through the pandemic – the undocumented immigrants who toil in essential industries such as restaurants, construction, and transportation. Yet, when they face their own health crises, they must do so on their own – without healthcare.
“They risked their lives,” said Sandra Choi, an organizer for the Minkwon Center for Community Action, a Queens-based group that supports Korean immigrants. “And they don’t have access to basic health insurance that could keep them healthy, safe, and being productive members of our society.”
Choi, and other activists, are pressing for the enactment of bills in the New York State legislature that would fund a $345 million health insurance program for undocumented immigrants. The Senate legislation (S1572A) – known as the Coverage For All bill – was approved this month by the Senate Health Committee by a 7-to-6 vote this month and sent to the Finance Committee. A similar bill is being weighed by the Assembly. Both houses must pass the legislation before it lands on the desk of Governor Kathy Hochul, who hasn’t said whether she is inclined to include it in her Executive Budget proposal due April 1.
On Feb. 18th, several organizations that advocate for undocumented immigrants rallied outside the governor’s Midtown Manhattan office on Third Avenue to persuade her to sign the Coverage4All bill into law if and when the legislature approves it. The groups included the New York Immigration Coalition and Make the Road New York. The groups emphasized the role that undocumented workers played in providing crucial services throughout the coronavirus crisis.
“A lot of people here are essential workers, doing performing jobs during the pandemic,” Choi said.
Seongeun Chun, director of health policy for the Manhattan-based New York Immigration Coalition, said she is optimistic about the legislation passing. “We’re getting new co-sponsors every week from the Senate and the Assembly.” The original four sponsors of the Senate bill have been joined by 21 co-sponsors. In the Assembly, 23 co-sponsors have signed with the initial four backers of the legislation.
According to the data from the Center for Migration Studies of New York, 70 percent of the state’s undocumented labor force works in essential businesses. Despite higher labor force participation, the median annual income for undocumented immigrants remains significantly lower than the U.S born citizens. An Economic Profile of Immigrants in New York City data indicates the median annual earning for undocumented immigrants is $25,300, and the earnings for U.S.-born citizens are $45,500.
Undocumented Immigrants’ ongoing struggle in the NY health system
Having access to public health insurance plays a crucial role as many undocumented immigrants are not eligible for most public benefits. Only a few of them have access to limited health coverage by Medicaid, such as children under 19 and pregnant women.
The Coverage for All insurance would allow undocumented immigrants to access comprehensive care that provides a wide range of healthcare services such as physician visits, preventative care, and efficient emergency room visits.
“We are people who work, and we pay our taxes,” said Juana Alvarez, 45. Alvarez is an undocumented immigrant working as a housekeeper in New York. During the demonstration, Alvarez recounted her experience with the New York City medical system. “I lost a baby because I didn’t have health insurance,” she said, “they left me in an emergency room for a whole day until they saw that I started to bleed. That’s when they came to take care of me.”
According to New York Immigration Coalition and Make the Road New York, there are 154,000 uninsured, low-income New Yorkers ineligible for any medical insurance. According to Chun, Coverage 4 All aim is to address this issue and would be a mitigating factor in reducing poverty, too. “It would be the first and only state-funded health coverage for low-income New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status, up to 200% of the federal poverty level” The proposed spending will cover 46,000 undocumented residents, Chun said.
Advocates for policies benefiting immigrant communities claim that undocumented immigrants do not seek medical help when they are sick because of the high price of services they cannot pay. Also, they say that many of them are afraid of being forced out of the country since they are in New York undocumented.
“If this bill passes, at least a lot of our people will have access to quality health care, and they will have the confidence to go to the hospital feeling safe. They will not be afraid of deportation because some of them are afraid of it,” said Gbenga Awonusi, Project Manager at Diligently Serving Immigrants (DSI). “Some of them are afraid that if they go to the hospital, they will give them a high bill, and they will not be able to pay for it. So, they resort to self-medication, which is dangerous to their health.”
Last Thursday, Marygrace Piskorowski spoke during a Facebook live event held by the New York Immigration Coalition. Piskorowski is a registered nurse and adjunct instructor at the University of Buffalo School of Nursing. “I truly believe that this bill and this legislation would affect all of us for the better,” said Piskorowski. “When everyone in our community is healthy, our state will be healthy, and our nation will be healthy,” she concluded.
Ongoing efforts to make #Coverage4All a reality
There seems to be no significant opposition from the community in New York City to the Coverage for All bill compared to the past. “There was significant opposition within our community 25 years ago when we first opened our community center. People were afraid that undocumented immigrants would take their job opportunities in the U.S.,” said Jonghun Kapsong Kim, director of Korean American Community development at Minkwon Center in Queens. However, now he noticed a critical change in the community. “Over 90 percent of the Korean community here agrees that the undocumented immigrants need access to public health care and support the cause.”
Undocumented immigrant advocacy organizations are leading efforts to publicize the Coverage 4 All campaign in New York City and across the state. Chun said it is critical to gather the voice and raise awareness now before the New York state budget deadline. “We’re having a huge mobilization in Albany on March 2, which is next Wednesday. We’re going to be marching around Albany and going to be increasing pressure on Governor Hochul and our state leadership to include it in the final budget.”
However, not everyone in Manhattan is aware of this campaign. Edmind Brown works at one of LabWorq’s Covid-19 testing hubs on the Upper West Side. He did not know anything about the #Coverage4All initiative and the efforts underway to get health coverage for NY immigrants. “Everyone needs coverage,” he said about it when he realized what this campaign was about. “I think they are doing a good thing. Everybody needs to be heard.”
“Health insurance coverage is like a basic right of a human being,” said Jason Kim, 27, a New York State of Health Navigator for Korean Community Services. “I believe that Coverage for All will be the fulfillment for the immigrants to have human rights in the city.”