Latina Voices Urge Policymakers: 15 Years Is Too Long to Wait for Health Care

Imagine that you have found a large lump in your breast or are experiencing pain in your ovaries. Or imagine your daughter, mother, or sister is having these experiences. Then imagine that you -- or she -- will be forced to wait 15 years for health care. For most people, waiting that long -- or making their loved ones wait -- is a harrowing thought. But this is the reality facing many immigrant women and their families under the immigration reform proposal approved by the U.S. Senate in June.

The proposal bars immigrants on the pathway to citizenship -- including those paying taxes and fines -- from receiving nonemergency Medicaid, as well as from any subsidies that would allow them to pay for prohibitively expensive private health insurance, for up to 15 years. In short, it leaves most of them uninsured.

By any human standard, this is unacceptable. Health care is a basic right every person living in this country should be able to access. Fifteen years is simply far too long to wait.

That's why I spent last month speaking with Latinas across the country during the fourth annual National Latina Week of Action for Reproductive Justice. More than 100 organizations across the country brought Latinas together to lobby their legislators or educate their communities to communicate that that immigrant women and their families should not have to wait 15 years to purchase health insurance.

This grassroots work comes at a critical moment, as anti-immigrant forces continue to attack efforts to solidify the pathway to citizenship for our nation's immigrants. But immigration reform policies are still being drafted, and there is still time to hold policymakers accountable for including the needs of immigrant women and their families.

Leaving immigrant women out has harmful consequences not only for individual lives, but also for our nation. Immigrant women, who comprise 51 percent of the immigrant population, contribute daily to the social, cultural, intellectual, and economic landscape of the United States. These women form the backbone of their communities and are the primary caregivers and increasingly the primary breadwinners. Yet, they are continually marginalized from society by policies that ignore them. Without an immigration reform that acknowledges their worth as human beings, they'll continue to be pushed into the shadows of health care, forced to seek medical care in potentially unsafe situations.

The 15-year waiting period adds insult to injury. Many immigrant women already have no access to affordable health insurance and are less likely to receive adequate care, including screenings for breast and cervical cancer, family planning, HIV/AIDS testing and treatment, and accurate sex education. In Texas, for example, policies that have forced health center closures have made accessing health care nearly impossible for many immigrant women, especially those living in colonias -- isolated border communities often lacking potable water, electricity, sewer systems, paved roads and safe housing.

This is already driving women to desperate extremes. One woman in Texas told us she swam across the Rio Grande back into Mexico to access life-saving reproductive care. Others reported buying medicine without official prescriptions and taking it without doctor supervision, simply because ongoing restrictions make it so difficult to access a health provider.

Latinas will not stand for this. Right now, nearly 4,000 signatures are en route to Washington, D.C. from people demanding an immigration reform policy that includes accessible health care for aspiring citizens and their families. Our collective strength will fuel our fight as we insist that all women in this country -- and their families -- have a safe, respected, and healthy place here.