HEALing Immigrant Women & Families: An International Student’s Perspective

Irene attends a rally on November 12 as SCOTUS hears oral arguments in three consolidated cases challenging the Trump administration’s decision to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

At the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), we advocate for reproductive health, rights, and justice and fight back against xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and anti-refugee policies throughout the year. It’s no different for our legislative fellows and interns — today’s post comes from Irene Li, a student at Smith College and NCJW’s Fall 2019 Legislative Intern.


Access to affordable health care is a basic human right. At the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), we believe that every individual deserves to obtain care with respect and dignity, and that access to affordable health care is one of the most fundamental services that a democratic government should provide to its citizens. Without equal access to quality care, disadvantaged citizens cannot exercise their civil rights and will be subjected to further discrimination.

Guess what — our policymakers have flagrantly increased such discrimination by selectively providing the insurance necessary to access health services. Current legislation bars immigrants from Medicaid, ACA exchange services, and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for the first 5 years after attaining their lawful status.

Imagine for a second that you are single mother who just received your green card. One day while at work, you learn that your five-year-old daughter fell from the stairs and now requires an expensive surgery that you cannot afford. What do you do?

Because of your immigration status, you cannot use CHIP to cover your daughter’s medical fees, nor can you work extra hours because you need to spend more time taking care of your daughter. In the end, you take out a loan out of desperation, only to fall into a debt abyss of accumulated interests.

Sadly, for too many immigrants, this brief daydream of yours is their living nightmare. Without CHIP or Medicaid, a single fall or medical emergency could be the last straw that financially and psychologically devastates an immigrant family.

While at school, many of my fellow international students received medical treatments from local hospitals at Northampton. Some of them had to call an ambulance because they passed out in the middle of the night, and some had surgery because they were diagnosed with pneumonia. These types of medical emergencies can be extremely expensive for those without health insurance. Fortunately, most of my fellow students are financially secure enough to purchase their own health insurance so that these illnesses did not significantly disturb their work or study. For immigrants who are not as fortunate as my classmates, however, these incidents could have destroyed their academic and professional development. Without Medicaid, many poor immigrants cannot afford quality health services. Some may miss key moments of treatment because they need to continue working to provide for their family. As a result, these people end up with an even greater illness that would prevent them from working altogether.

As an advocate and as a foreigner living in the US, I cannot possibly remain idle and simply watch as so many immigrants suffer. As is illustrated above, immigrants struggle financially not because they are not willing to work hard, but because they are actively prevented from doing so by discriminatory policies. What’s more, it’s important to note that the majority of immigrants are women and that most of these women tend to be poor, without comprehensive insurance coverage, and of reproductive age. I will fight on their behalf, for those most impacted by these unconscionable restrictions, and for a future of equity where affordable health care is accessible to all, regardless of their immigration status.

Fortunately, I know that I do not stand alone. I am inspired by those who have dedicated their lives to advocate for immigrants’ health and equality. For over 125 years, NCJW has been working to promote social justice. Inspired by the Jewish value of kavod ha bri’ot, we know that everyone deserves to receive care with respect and dignity. However, as illustrated above, immigrants are currently forced to navigate a complicated patchwork of care that often forces them to delay or forego their right to affordable care. Access to this care is not a service that government may selectively provide to its people based on their immigration status­. If a person’s financial status prevents him or her from paying for his own health care, then the government should step in and help.

As all are created in the divine image — b’tselem Elohim — we cannot allow the denial of basic human rights to jeopardize immigrant health and lives. The Health Equity and Access under the Law (HEAL) for Immigrant Women and Families Act (HR 4701), introduced by Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Deb Haaland (D-NM), removes discriminatory legal barriers denying immigrants access to the health care programs, and expands access to affordable care. Lawmakers must pass this critical legislation to ensure that immigrant women and families receive the health care they need, fostering healthier communities and a stronger economy.

Immigrants deserve the same access to affordable care as other Americans. There is simply no justification for the government to exclude them from the health care system for as long as five years, often causing great harm to the immigrant and their family. Policies that set immigrants up for discrimination must be terminated. We must turn our outrage into action and push Congress to pass the HEAL Act. This will be another incremental step to secure immigrants’ rights and to cement equality and justice for all.




Unapologetic feminist since ’93. Advocate for reproductive health, rights, and justice at the National Council of Jewish Women.

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Shannon Russell

Shannon Russell

Unapologetic feminist since ’93. Advocate for reproductive health, rights, and justice at the National Council of Jewish Women.

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