Regulations that give local law-enforcement officers the authority to act on federal immigration laws could have a chilling effect on the use of health care services within Hispanic communities.
By Whitney L.J. Howell
The health of North Carolina’s Hispanic newborns could be at risk from an immigration law.
The federal Immigration and Nationality Act – the same law that led to a racial profiling lawsuit against the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office in 2012 – could also be having a negative impact on the health of unborn babies in North Carolina’s Hispanic communities, according to new research from Wake Forest University.
According to researchers from Wake Forest’s School of Medicine, the heightened fear of deportation generated by this and other laws, in addition to Latinos’ lack of understanding of their rights under immigration laws, has played a role in the unwillingness of North Carolina’s pregnant Hispanic women to seek out the medical services they need.
The study reveals these women are less likely than women of other ethnicities to receive timely and sufficient prenatal care.
“Regardless of the status of the mother or father, a child born here is an American citizen under the Constitution, and we would hope that all children born in this country are healthy and can avoid preventable illness,” said Mark Hall, a Wake Forest law professor with expertise in health care law and public policy who participated in the study. “So it’s certainly important that all expectant mothers receive adequate prenatal care.”
Delaying prenatal care
But that’s not what’s happening, Hall said.
Based on a data review and personal interviews conducted in 2012, Hall and his fellow researchers discovered approximately 30 percent of Hispanic women in North Carolina don’t start prenatal care until after the first trimester.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommendations suggest the initial visit occur between eight to 10 weeks. In comparison, according to the same study data, only 10 percent of non-Hispanic women delayed receiving care. Additionally, 30 percent of Hispanic women – versus 8 percent of all other women – received less than half of the 14 doctor examinations recommended in ACOG guidelines.
Unfortunately, said Angeline Echevarria, executive director of El Pueblo, a Latino community-advocacy group, North Carolina’s Hispanic residents often forego preventive health care services out of fear associated with their citizenship status.
“We’ve found that when community members feel they’re being singled out or targeted by law enforcement, it puts a damper on their willingness to seek health services that aren’t associated with any type of emergency,” she said. “We see this especially in rural areas where public transportation isn’t really an option. A lack of good mobility options limits their willingness to drive around and take a chance for what they deem as unnecessary care. So they put off preventive services, even though we don’t recommend it.”
Although N.C. Healthy Start reports first-generation Hispanics maintain the state’s lowest infant mortality rate – 3.7 per 1,000 live births – pregnant women in this community still face risks if they don’t receive proper medical services. Inadequate prenatal care has been linked to low birth weight; neural tube defects, such as spina bifida; congenital illnesses, impaired heart and brain development; and increased infant mortality. Newborns who don’t receive proper prenatal care are 40 percent more likely to die within the first month of life, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
It’s also possible, Hall said, that this group’s rate of inadequate prenatal care could create a significant public health issue for North Carolina. Based on 2013 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, there are more than 875,000 Hispanics in North Carolina, nearly 9 percent of the state’s population.
Effects of the law?
Using vital records data from 2012, six focus groups, and 17 in-person interviews, the study analyzed how expectant Hispanic women accessed and used prenatal care services for nine months before and nine to 18 months after the Immigration and Nationality Act went into effect. The researchers reviewed data from seven counties that adopted the law and seven that didn’t.
Under the INA’s section 287(g), U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement can effectively deputize state and local agencies, giving them the authority to uphold federal immigration laws during routing law-enforcement activities. The U.S. Department of Justice cited traffic stop data to argue that the Alamance County sheriff’s department was being overly aggressive in targeting Latinos under the aegis of the INA.
In 2012, federal officials terminated the county’s participation in the program. This past year, Terry Johnson, the Alamance County sheriff, was tried in a federal court on charges of discriminatory policing. A judge has yet to rule in the case.
Researchers can’t say definitively whether immigration regulations caused the drop in access of prenatal care services, Hall said, but the data did indicate fewer women sought care after its enactment than before.
In the interviews, pregnant women frequently reported a lack of insurance contributed to their foregoing prenatal care.
Data from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation reported 43 percent of N.C. Hispanics don’t have health insurance. This amount mirrors the Pew Research Center statistic of 43 percent of Hispanic 18-to-64-year-olds nationally who are without health insurance.
For some women, transportation was an issue, Hall said. Many were concerned they would be pulled over en route to the doctor’s office for a routine traffic violation and have their immigration status discovered. This is what happened in Alamance County, where a review of traffic stops showed deputies from the sheriff’s department were more likely to stop Latinos for minor traffic violations, such as riding without a seat belt.
Another group of women in the study feared the doctor would report them to immigration officials.
To combat these concerns, North Carolina’s public policy and medical leaders must improve communication around patients’ rights and access to care, Hall said. Greater clarity about whether immigration enforcement can even affect medical care – medical providers are neither required nor expected to check immigration status when providing services – could also be helpful.
In addition, he said, knowing there’s no real risk of being reported by the doctor’s office could encourage more women to find some type of reliable transportation to their appointments.
Ultimately, Hall said, improving prenatal care for Hispanic women could have a positive impact on North Carolina’s health overall.
“As a society, we have concern over everyone’s health, particularly those of children. If reluctance or fear affects the willingness to get immunizations, it could impact communicable diseases,” Hall said. “In general, there’s a larger implication. We need to think beyond just enforcing immigration policy to the labor and economic impacts on families, as well as the public health impacts that aren’t fully recognized.”