Undocumented Parents Skip Medicaid For Citizen Kids : Shots - Health News A growing number of American children are losing out on Medicaid — and other programs — because their parents are undocumented immigrants and fear detainment and deportation.
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Fearing Deportation, Some Immigrants Opt Out Of Health Benefits For Their Kids

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Fearing Deportation, Some Immigrants Opt Out Of Health Benefits For Their Kids

Fearing Deportation, Some Immigrants Opt Out Of Health Benefits For Their Kids

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Texas now where the shock waves from President Trump's zero tolerance border policy reach beyond the crisis around reuniting thousands of children with their parents. U.S.-born children whose parents are here in the U.S. without documentation are feeling the impact. Constant fear of forced separation is nothing new for these families, but now it is keeping parents away from government services critical to a child's health. Ashley Lopez of member station KUT in Austin reports.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Marlene is in a situation a lot of parents in Texas are finding themselves in these days. We aren't using Marlene's last name because she's undocumented. She has two children. Both of them were born in the U.S. One of her kids has some disabilities.

MARLENE: (Speaking Spanish).

LOPEZ: "My son is getting speech therapy," she says. And she says it's been a difficult journey, but he's finally making some progress. Marlene says he's getting help through Medicaid. Both her kids are citizens, so they're entitled government services, including food stamps, now called SNAP. But Marlene says she stopped getting that benefit.

MARLENE: (Speaking Spanish).

LOPEZ: She says that's because the government is asking a lot of questions...

MARLENE: (Speaking Spanish).

LOPEZ: ...Investigating her life from, quote, "head to toe." She says the government asked for things she never had to provide before, including years of paystubs.

MARLENE: (Speaking Spanish).

LOPEZ: She was getting sick from the stress, Marlene says. I repeatedly called and emailed state health officials about these changes and got no answer. And while her son has Medicaid for the next several months, Marlene says she also may pull him from Medicaid next year if that application makes her nervous, too.

MARIA HERNANDEZ: We're seeing families having to make this impossible choice.

LOPEZ: That's Maria Hernandez. She founded a group in Austin called VELA which helps parents who have children with disabilities. She teaches her classes in what used to be an elementary school on the east side of Austin, one of the most diverse areas of the city. Hernandez says about 7 in 10 of the families she works with are immigrants, mostly from Mexico.

HERNANDEZ: And so we're working with families who the parents are immigrant but the children are born here.

LOPEZ: Parents tell Hernandez they feel like they can't risk any attention from the government, even if that means losing badly needed benefits for their kids. They're making critical choices out of fear.

HERNANDEZ: It's out of fear of deportation. It's out of fear of having their children be penalized in some way and potentially losing a parent that until this point has been their fierce advocate.

LOPEZ: In Texas, this is a decision that is bound to affect a significant number of children, says Anne Dunkelberg with the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin.

ANNE DUNKELBERG: A quarter of Texas children have at least one parent who's not a U.S. citizen. Now, I am sure not a hundred percent of those kids - and it's about 1.8 million kids - not a hundred percent of them are using a public benefit, but a very high percentage will be.

LOPEZ: Dunkelberg says families opting out of Medicaid could further raise the number of uninsured in Texas, already the highest in the nation. Maria Hernandez says parents she works with who have children with disabilities have told her without Medicaid they'll rely on emergency rooms. These are kids with serious chronic conditions.

HERNANDEZ: Kids that for forever have been followed by a neurologist because they have seizures or have been going to occupational therapy for years and are finally making progress.

LOPEZ: Health care groups say this trend could get worse if a proposed change to green card eligibility becomes law. The Trump administration wants it to count against applicants if family members receive government services, even if those family members are citizens. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SOUL'S RELEASE'S "CATCHING FIREFLIES")

KELLY: And that story is part of a reporting partnership between NPR and Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SOUL'S RELEASE'S "CATCHING FIREFLIES")

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