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COVID-19 shows why state IDs, licenses for undocumented immigrants are essential

Two months ago I received a text message from a friend asking where undocumented people could get treatment for COVID-19. Jen was supporting an undocumented man who was recently released from the St. Clair County Detention Center. He was denied testing and treatment at the local hospital because he didn’t have medical insurance or an ID. I had heard rumors that undocumented people were being denied coronavirus related healthcare but this was the first time I encountered it. This experience led me into a rabbit hole of policies and frustrations. 

Undocumented people are at a high risk of dying in their homes because they’re afraid to get testing and treatment. Lack of an identification card or driver’s license shouldn’t be a death sentence. But why are so many people denied testing and treatment in the first place?

The answer is a lethal combination of lack of ID or driver’s license, lack of health insurance, delayed information (undocumented immigrants are always an afterthought), and lack of language access.

For undocumented immigrants, the trauma of being asked to show ID, and thus being seen as an “other” is deeply seeded. For over 10 years, undocumented immigrants have been denied access to an ID or driver’s license. The shame, fear and anger that comes from being asked “why don’t you have an ID?” has created a learned response: Don’t go anywhere where you might be asked to show an ID or driver’s license. Don’t buy cold medicine. Don’t venture too far from home. Don’t go near the police. Don’t go to the doctor.

Undocumented immigrants are forced to decide between going to the emergency room and paying thousands of dollars, or going without medical care. The average income of undocumented immigrants is $36,000 per year, and unlike U.S. citizens, undocumented immigrants are banned from receiving food assistance, unemployment, and disability benefits.

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