Study: Alabama immigration law keeps Latinas from using health services

By on February 6, 2014

Numerous states have passed immigration bills in recent years, but Alabama’s immigration law has been described as one of the harshest in the United States. Previous research has examined how specific regulations affect immigrants, but how laws impact the health of immigrants and their use of health services had not been fully explored.

Health policy experts from the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health interviewed Latina immigrant women about how their use of health care changed for themselves and their children after Alabama’s immigration law — House Bill 56 — was passed in 2011.

Their work is published online in the American Journal of Public Health.

The women included in the study had to be ages 19 to 49, have children younger than 18, reside in Jefferson County and be living in Alabama when HB 56 was passed. A total of 30 women were recruited to participate — 15 had U.S.-born children, and 15 had at least one foreign-born child.

“Several states have passed omnibus immigration laws like Alabama’s, and many others have considered similar provisions,” said Kari White, Ph.D., the study’s lead author. “By conducting this study, we were able to assess the effect of a law that was much broader in scope on immigrants’ use of health services.”

White and colleagues found that the law kept some Latina immigrant women and children from using health services because they did not believe they were eligible for care — even though they were in some cases — or they experienced greater financial barriers after the law was passed that prevented them from seeking services in private clinics.

“This is a population that already has lower rates of using preventive and primary health care, and laws like Alabama’s may further reduce access to important health services and exacerbate existing health disparities,” White said. “We also found that women experienced problems seeking care for their U.S.-born children, who were not necessarily the target of the legislation.”

Additionally, White says the population studied was confused about new documentation requirements when seeking care, and they often felt mistreated by clinic staff simply because they were Latino and presumed to be undocumented.

“When Latino immigrants, like the women in our study, are afraid or unable to get health care, this can have broader impacts on public health and public expenditures in the form of communicable disease transmission and preventable emergency care,” White said.

The researchers, White says, were struck by the greater sense of discrimination that Latina immigrants reported when accessing care after the law was passed, and they were also somewhat surprised to hear that clinic staff did not always seem to have accurate information about health services that were exempt from the law’s documentation requirements.

“These results suggest that broad, sweeping measures aimed at deterring the settlement of unauthorized immigrants may have consequences beyond those originally intended,” White said. “Policymakers drafting future immigration laws should carefully consider the law’s potential negative effects — both within and outside immigrant communities.”

White says these results can be used to educate the Latino community in Alabama about the specific provisions of the law that pertain to eligibility for publicly funded health services, and they can also inform the broader public about the adverse effects these laws may have.

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