“I don’t want to spread fear, but any time people are afraid to get medical care there are potential complications.”
— Jim McVay, Alabama Department of Public Health
Alabama’s new immigration law has several potentially devastating public-health consequences. The law requires proof of lawful status for any “business transaction” with any state or political subdivision. It also requires everyone to show their papers when requested by any law enforcement official, public utility or government agency, or school official. These laws will mean fewer people seeking preventative health care, less food security, and unsafe water supplies, among other things.
Here are the 10 most destruction public-health consequences under Alabama’s H.B. 56:
1. Children won’t get required immunizations. A key safeguard of public health is a robust immunization program that protects all residents against diseases such as chicken pox, measles, polio, and even the flu. Health workers in Alabama report that people are afraid to come to their clinics for flu shots. If parents are afraid to get flu shots for themselves or their children, even though the law technically says that lawful status is not required for immunizations, our whole society is put at risk.
2. Communicable diseases will spread. Another bedrock of public health is accessible screening and treatment programs for communicable diseases. Tuberculosis and hepatitis are contagious diseases that are detected only through vigorous testing and cured only through consistent treatment. Alabama public-health officials warned the state years ago that if undocumented residents of Alabama were afraid of the immigration consequences of going to a health clinic, there would be increased risk of “severe health problems and the spread of infections.”
3. Mothers won’t get adequate prenatal care. It is common knowledge that healthy mothers are more likely to give birth to healthy babies. The Alabama law does not require lawful status for prenatal care, but undocumented mothers who are afraid to go to health clinics for fear of being asked for “papers please” won’t get the care they need. The head of the Alabama Department of Public Health, Don Williamson, warned in testimony in 2007 that there had already been a sharp increase in low-birthweight babies and infant deaths among the Hispanic population in the state and that fewer than half of Hispanic mothers had received prenatal care. Williamson urged that the state avoid establishing “restrictions for programs that serve pregnant women, infants and children.”
4. Babies will require more medical services. Babies born to mothers who have not received good prenatal care will require additional medical care and will be a challenge to the public-health services in the state. As Dr. Williamson noted in his testimony, lack of access to maternal and infant preventative care can result in medical problems becoming “serious and more expensive.”
5. U.S. citizen children and those in lawful status won’t get adequate health care. Citizen children of parents who are afraid to go to clinics, or whose parents aren’t sure if they are barred by the “business transaction” provision of the law, won’t get the health care they need and deserve. “Waiting rooms that once were full at some county health clinics just a few weeks ago now have empty seats because Hispanic patients stopped showing up,” reports Dr. Jim McVay of the Alabama Department of Public Health. Citizen kids will suffer lifetime consequences that follow from not getting adequate health care when they are young.
6. Water will be less safe. Clean water is a fundamental requirement for a healthy society. Serious public-health risks such as E. coli infections and even cholera can spread through contaminated water. If residents of Alabama can’t get public water and sewer service, and can’t even get permits to repair or install safe septic tanks, they will be forced to use potentially unsafe water, which could expose them to health risks and then others they come in contact with. Broken septic systems also can contaminate the public water supply. Everyone will be exposed to unnecessary health risks and dangers.
7. Restaurants will be unable to get health permits. The Alabama Department of Public Health is now requiring proof of citizenship for health permits for restaurants. While many restaurant owners who can’t meet this requirement will shut down, others may simply try to operate underground without health permits, at least until overworked health inspectors locate and stop them. The risk to public health will only increase under these conditions.
8. Food supplies will be less safe. Safe food is a fundamental requirement for a healthy society. Outbreaks of E. coli in the food supply have already alarmed the public in recent months. If residents of Alabama are unable to obtain septic permits, the resulting contaminated water will run off into farms and fields, and the food supply will be less safe. Public risk of food-borne disease will increase.
9. Public health costs will increase. Alabama’s new immigration law may temporarily reduce the cost of providing medical care to undocumented residents, but it will greatly increase the overall cost of medical care for all residents of Alabama who will be exposed to increased risk and disease as the result of the shortsighted policies listed above. The more people delay primary care, for example, the greater the likelihood that they will require more expensive emergency care down the road.
10. Bottom line: All of the people of Alabama will suffer negative health consequences. The 4.8 million people of Alabama will suffer unnecessary and increased public health risks as the result of a law intended to punish and drive out 2.5 percent of the population. Such high risk for such alleged benefit does a terrible disservice to all of the people of Alabama.