I couldn’t remember the last time I had a medical check-up; I was 20, and it had been at least five years. When I was a little kid in South Los Angeles, my mother would only take my older sister and me to the doctor when we were already sick; whether we had a fever or any other illness, every visit cost $100, including treatments. Then a neighbor informed my mom of a community clinic that offered free visits for low-income families—but only, again, if we were already sick. The clinic was our best option because as undocumented immigrants we had no insurance and weren’t eligible for benefits from state programs.
The Affordable Care Act is supposed to make sure everyone has health insurance, but everyone does not, as of yet, include my entire family. I’m one of the young people covered by President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows people who immigrated with their parents before they were 16 to live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation. (I am told I crossed the border from Mexico when I was 2 years old, sitting in the back of a car.) But Deferred Action doesn’t guarantee me the benefits of Obamacare under federal law; in California, the law appears to make me eligible for at least some of Obamacare’s benefits, but I feel like I’m in limbo, since I don’t yet understand how that’s supposed to work.
The Affordable Care Act divides my family, too. My older sister, who also immigrated as a child, would be in limbo too if she were still in the United States. My younger, U.S.-born siblings—my 13-year-old sister and my 8-year-old brother—will benefit from the program once they grow up. Right now, because they are citizens, they are covered under Medicaid in the state of Indiana, where my parents moved about three years ago.
And my parents? They are completely shut out because of their legal status; Obamacare’s benefits do not extend to the undocumented community. This worries me: They need healthcare more than my siblings and I do.
My earliest memories are of my parents staying up until midnight and then waking up every weekday and on Saturdays at 3 a.m. in our South Los Angeles home to check on the tamales. They’d boil water mixed with corn starch, blocks of chocolate, and cinnamon for champurrado, a traditional hot Mexican drink. My dad would load the food they’d made onto his yellow vendor tricycle. My mom would fill a grocery cart with prepared foods, which she would push as she walked my sister and me to elementary school.
I remember seeing my mother sick many times. She would self-medicate with teas she bought from our local market. When the pain got bad enough, she took public transportation to a community clinic about 20 minutes away. The clinic doctor eventually diagnosed her with asthma. When the asthma acted up, she stayed in bed coughing and wheezing. Even today, she only decides to go to a community clinic when she feels that her body is in massive pain. Now that she lives in Indiana she pays $20 for her visits and $10 to $15 for treatments. (My aunt, who also lives in Indiana, has it worse—she is dealing with kidney failure and pays $400 each month for dialysis treatment.)
I don’t think my father has visited the doctor since he immigrated to the United States from Mexico 18 years ago. Whenever my siblings or I would complain about a runny nose, my father laughed and said he never got sick because he kept himself healthy by eating so many vegetables and fruits. He would also say that he comes from a family with strong immune systems, and he was glad he didn’t have to spend time or money on doctor’s visits. Still, I’ve seen him bedridden with the flu or a cold. He also suffers from chronic pain in one of his knees, which he hurt in an accident involving a drainage ditch in Mexico. I once saw him miss a day of work, and he was miserable—because it meant we’d be short on rent, bills, or food.
During my senior year of high school, three years ago, my parents told me they were leaving L.A. They had reported to the police that a gang member was extorting money from them. When the gang member found out, he threatened to kill them. My parents wanted me to move with them, but I chose to stay to finish high school because I believed there were more opportunities for me in California as an undocumented student. The day before I sat for the SAT, I said goodbye to my younger siblings and my parents. I saw my father cry for the first time when I hugged him—and it made me cry. After my parents left, I went to live at my uncle’s house, where I shared a room with my three younger cousins.
Now I’m back living in South L.A. on my own and pursuing my education at East Los Angeles College. The closest I come to a check-up is when I donate blood. It’s reassuring to know that my blood, tested by the nurses, is healthy enough to be given to others. But it’s no substitute for a doctor’s visit. I’m young, but two of my uncles developed leukemia, and I know that even if I feel invincible, I’m not. For now, if I were to get sick, I would be able to use ELAC’s medical facility because it’s included in my student fees.
I am glad the Affordable Care Act will make getting healthcare easier for people living in poverty, particularly Latinos, who have been over-represented among the uninsured. The boost in healthcare coverage for documented people within mixed families like mine might have indirect positive benefits. I’m less likely to get sick from relatives and friends who have healthcare coverage. And if more people in my community can afford healthcare, clinics could offer better services and more hours.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Obamacare has left a hole in the healthcare system that’s big enough to swallow my parents. They will have to continue to work and pay out of pocket to visit a doctor for the foreseeable future.
They feel time weighing them down. My mom is 42 years old and my father is 45, and they live paycheck to paycheck, without any real savings. They couldn’t afford my older sister’s college tuition; she ended up having to go back to Mexico.
The bottom line is that the money and time they will have to spend struggling with their own health takes away from the money and time they’d prefer to devote to my two young siblings, who are, after all, supposed to be the beneficiaries of this law.
Miguel Molina was a member of Intersections South LA Reporter Corps, a program of the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, and was a representative in the California Dream Network, a branch of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA).
This was originally published by Zócalo Public Square on April 14, 2014.
*Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.