Why the pursuit of health equity must include all immigrants

April 10, 2018
By Kendra Allen

The Consumer Health Foundation believes that immigration status is a social determinant of health. It determines the type of job you can have, where you will live, if you can drive and, ultimately, your access to healthcare. In addition, the US has a long history of exclusion and discrimination based on immigration status, which can be seen in the language used to describe individuals with noncitizen status and the increase in anti-immigrant sentiments in recent years. The following interview, which has been edited, reflects the challenges faced by immigrants living in the region and across the country.

We would like to thank the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC) in Virginia, a nonprofit organization that organizes Korean and Asian Americans to achieve social, economic, and racial justice, for their help in facilitating this interview.

Min Su Kang is a 19 year-old working college student. He is originally from Korea but grew up in Virginia. His father moved the family to the US to pursue the American Dream. He was able to set up a business here but lost it during the 2008 recession.

Min Su Kang /Credit: Alex Jones

How has your immigration status impacted your life in Virginia?

Life is pretty difficult since I am undocumented, and it’s really hard for me to fit in with everyone else. I couldn’t really get a job or learn how to drive or get a car or anything growing up. My friends would say you’re so slow or you’re just being lazy. And I couldn’t just tell them, “Hey I’m undocumented. That’s why I can’t do everything that you guys are doing.” The image that the media puts on undocumented immigrants or use of the term of “illegal immigrants” puts me down on my status too.

Are you open with your status now and was there a journey to get there?

Now a lot of people know about the DACA program and ever since I started being with NAKASEC, I started to be more open with my status. Now I have DACA. There are still certain limitations with DACA. I’m just glad I can drive back and forth to work like everyone else. But it’s still difficult because I can’t apply to certain jobs because they require you to be a citizen.

Can you talk about the process of getting DACA?

It was definitely difficult finding all that information, for example all of the previous houses that I lived in. I’ve probably moved more than 11 or 12 times throughout my stay in America. It was difficult for my mom and frustrating trying to figure out where I used to live. I rode my bike 16 miles away from where I am currently living just to figure out where I lived by memory.

Almost 26% of Virginia adults between 18 and 64 have medical debt. Low-income and uninsured residents often have higher rates of this debt and as a result, they decide not to seek care when they need it. Can you talk about an experience where you have had to seek medical care?

Last year, I had to remove all four of my wisdom teeth. On top of that, the month after my wisdom teeth extraction, I felt a little lump on my lower abdomen, which required me to go to the emergency room to figure out what it was. I paid $3,000 out of pocket. I was saving up for college during that time and because of that, I could only attend two classes that year. I couldn’t attend college full time which kind of upset me but it was a need that I had to get done in order for me to live more comfortably. But the fact that I couldn’t go to school because of that medical expense was definitely a struggle for me.

I do have to go back to the dentist next month. I am worried about what I’d have to pay for everything. I also ran out of my contacts too, so I have to pay more for my contacts. One of my friends actually has insurance and he only pays $50 for a year’s worth of contacts but I pay $400 per six months.

How were you treated by staff?

I asked them if there were any student discount because I definitely knew that I couldn’t afford any of the costs. They did have some sort of installment plan but they said because I was a student they were willing to waive some of the fees. I think they paid more than 40% of the bill but I still paid $3,000.

Did you tell the hospital staff you were undocumented?

No, I couldn’t bring myself to tell them I’m undocumented because one of my closest friends was with me. At the time I couldn’t bring myself to say I can’t afford all of this because I’m undocumented. I guess I kind of just sucked up my pride and asked them if there were any student discount rate.

How does it feel living like that?

It’s disappointing. I ask my friends if they have insurance and they say their parents work somewhere and they get insurance and they’re covered beneath it. But I live with my single mother and she owns her own business so whatever she makes, she makes. There are no benefits from anything because it’s her own business.

Have you experienced any discrimination for being an undocumented immigrant?

I have definitely been discriminated against but mostly it was jokes from my friends. They would ask, “Oh why can’t you do this or do that” and I would say because I can’t and they would say, “Oh don’t you have green card or visa or blah blah blah”. It was like that. In middle school, they made jokes about everything. We were just kids and I understand but it definitely discouraged me in a lot of ways. I guess I started slacking more on my studies because I just knew I would never be able to afford college or have any sort of help for college.

For the major that I want to do which is cybersecurity, most of the cybersecurity jobs require you to be a US citizen for security reasons and since I’m not a citizen, it kind of makes that field pointless to me. But it’s something that I really like and something that I want to pursue. America is called the land of opportunity for a reason but I don’t think I can see any opportunity with my current status.

Virginia is considering Medicaid expansion. It would provide health care for up to 300,000 uninsured people. As of this point, DACA recipients and undocumented people in Virginia are not eligible to apply for Medicaid; therefore the expansion would not open up eligibility to these populations. What is your opinion on Medicaid expansion?

I think Medicaid expansion is a great thing. To be honest, what I want is a pathway to citizenship because if I’m a citizen, I’d have more access to healthcare. So if there is Medicaid expansion, that’s great but it won’t solve my status. It would be good to have that little security but to an undocumented person, I’d rather have a pathway to citizenship.

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