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Limited Health Care Options for Oklahoma’s Immigrants
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Limited Health Care Options for Oklahoma’s Immigrants

When they’re ill, they borrow medicine from relatives or get discounted prescriptions from a community health center. If they’re hurting from an ear infection, back sprain or other painful injury, they may go to an emergency room. If they’re depressed and can’t sleep or function well, they may wait for months to see a Spanish-speaking counselor.

Chase Cook of Oklahoma Watch reported on how undocumented immigrants in Oklahoma subsist on the edge, not only in terms of finding jobs and places to live, but also in gaining access to basic, continuing medical care. They also may have little chance of gaining health-care coverage in the coming decade. An estimated 75,000 undocumented immigrants, most of them from Mexico, live in Oklahoma.

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Chase’s Story Behind the Story

When he got up in front of everyone and said he was an undocumented immigrant, I flinched, expecting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to leap up and drag him away.

But they didn’t come. Nobody took him away, and the speaker told us his story of how he came to America. How is parents wanted his life to better than it could ever be in Mexico. It was moving. His family was chasing the American dream like the fresh immigrants who came to the colonies. My reaction surprised me.

I submitted my application to the Institute for Justice in Journalism because I knew that I was ignorant about undocumented immigration. However, the fellowship not only taught me just how ignorant I was, but also it submerged me in the topic in a compassionate way that allowed me to see the human side of the issue, not just numbers and facts.

I didn’t know the true reason why immigrants would risk undocumented status. I didn’t know the dangers they faced at the hands of predatory businesses, poor health care or over zealous ICE agents. I didn’t know an undocumented person at all. They existed as sources in other stories or characters in novels.

So in doing this fellowship, I decided to write about a topic affecting documented and undocumented immigrants – health care. I wanted to know how they got treatment without any access to insurance, how that impacted their lives and I wanted to get a better connection to the community so that my reporting would have compassion as well as facts and figures.

The story I ended up telling was how current immigration reform had no plans to help undocumented immigrants receive health care, and the only options newly legalized immigrants would have if the legislation passed were insurance through work and buying full-price insurance from the exchange markets. Unlike documented immigrants, the undocumented work lower-paying jobs that would rarely offer insurance and likely never afford coverage of full-price insurance.

This left people like Rodrigo Ponce to fend for himself, an undocumented immigrant who needs weekly dialysis treatments to survive. It was a challenge finding an undocumented immigrant to speak with me, but after several phone calls and connections I was able to speak with Deisy Escalera about her father, Ponce. Escalera also is undocumented. Their family struggles to pay for his hospital bills, and is still doing so today.

Escalera, her father and other undocumented immigrants who have spoken with me and other journalists have shown incredible bravery. They are willing to talk so their stories and struggles aren’t washed away in political rhetoric.

And thanks to my fellowship training with IJJ, I had a better understanding of why Escalera and her family were undocumented. The trip we took to the Santa Fe High School really opened up my eyes to how undocumented families live in America. High school children work all evening after school while trying to live their lives as children. Parents rarely drive and sometimes must sneak around to get simple things like groceries and health care.

This trip informed my reporting so that I had some measure of sympathy for the issues undocumented families face. I was able to approach the families and see past their undocumented status to see the people who were struggling for medicine and education and an overall better life.

My story was published at Oklahoma Watch and in The Oklahoman and The Norman Transcript. I hope my story and many other stories from IJJ fellows and other immigration reporters will start a discussion on the type of care undocumented immigrants should receive.

I plan to take my training with me to the Maryland, Washington D.C. area, where I will be in a prime position to report on the national immigration discussion. There is a good chance the immigration bill will pass despite partisan bickering. I hope to cover the changing landscape of immigration after the bill is passed with stories that look at the effectiveness of the new system and how provisional status immigrants are treated.

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