More than a quarter of young immigrants protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, better known as DACA, lack health insurance and face burdens depriving them from accessing care, according to new data first shared with NBC News.
A report published Friday by the immigrant rights nonprofit National Immigration Law Center documenting the findings of a recent survey finds that 27% of DACA recipients reported not being covered by any kind of health insurance or other health care plan.
The results suggest that of the more than 580,000 young adults without legal status who are allowed to work and study without fear of deportation under the Obama-era DACA program, close to 157,000 are estimated to be uninsured.
The survey was conducted last year with 817 DACA recipients. It was administered by Tom K. Wong, founding director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at the University of California, San Diego, with the help of United We Dream, the nation’s largest immigrant youth-led organization, the Center for American Progress policy institute and the National Immigration Law Center.
A previous version of the survey conducted in 2021 found the DACA uninsured rate to be at 34%. Kica Matos, president of the National Immigration Law Center, attributed the slight dip to “a healthier economic climate.”
“The last survey was done when we were still in the middle of the pandemic, so we believe that economic trends have since improved…This likely means there are more DACA recipients that are employed and therefore have access to health care” through their employers, Matos said.
Of the DACA recipients who reported having health insurance, 80% said they were covered through an employer or union.
But unlike most Americans, if a DACA recipient loses their job and with that their health insurance, they can’t fall back on federal health insurance programs, which are often more affordable but are only available to those with legal immigration status.
Because being ineligible for federal health insurance contributes to DACA recipients’ high uninsurance rate, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Joe Biden proposed a rule that would expand access to health care coverage for DACA recipients. Research has found that DACA recipients contributed an estimated $6.2 billion in federal taxes every year that help fund such programs.
The Biden proposal calls for the definition of “lawful presence” to be amended to include DACA recipients for purposes of Medicaid and Affordable Care Act coverage.
“It brings up a lot of hope for many of us to be able to have affordable health care access because a lot of the times we avoid going to a doctor,” DACA recipient Diana Avila said. “The thought of how much is it going to cost is what drives a lot of us to not want to go to the doctor.”
The proposed Biden rule hasn’t yet been finalized, meaning that DACA recipients’ access to federal health insurance programs is not yet a done deal.
In response to an email from NBC News, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which submitted the proposed rule, stated that “While we cannot speculate on when the rule will be finalized, note that the proposed rule includes a proposed effective date for all provisions of November 1, 2023.”
The CMS will be requesting comment from the public until June 23 on the proposed regulations, “and specifically on the feasibility of this date and whether to consider a different effective date,” they stated in the email.
Avila, 22, was born in Honduras and has lived in Indiana since she was a 4-year-old. Avila was 12 when she got DACA in 2012.
Obstacles to health care access
DACA recipients are awaiting the fate of the proposed rule at a time when they are three times more likely to be uninsured than the U.S. general population, according to the 2022 survey.
DACA has helped many eligible young immigrants access better paying jobs and educational opportunities, but that hasn’t been the case for all recipients.
“There are still significant disparities in terms of access to health care for this particular population,” Matos said.
According to the survey, DACA recipients reported other barriers to accessing health care:
- 57% of respondents believed they were ineligible to access care due to their immigration status.
- 51% reported not being aware of any affordable care or coverage options available to them.
- 21% believed that accessing health care services could negatively affect their immigration status or that of a family member.
Of those surveyed, 71% reported past situations where they were unable to pay medical bills or expenses in the past.
On top of that, “there are also those memories of families not being able to afford healthcare and having to deal with bills,” Matos added.