How Environmental Injustices Harm Immigrant Families’ Health

By Juan Gomez and Hannah Liu

CLASP recognizes the important ways in which climate change impacts the people and policies we advocate for. This blog is the fifth in a series exploring the intersection of environmental justice and economic security for people living with low incomes. Explore the series here.

Leading researchers agree that environmental destabilization caused by the climate crisis is one of the driving factors for people migrating to and seeking asylum in the United States. But pollution and poor environmental practices in this country also harm immigrant families by causing serious long-term health problems. Our nation’s exclusionary health care policies leave families with little to no way of addressing this harmful exposure. 

As a result of segregation, economic inequality, and anti-Black land use decisions, many communities of color, which often also have low incomes, reside where they are more vulnerable to the consequences of environmental deterioration. 

Neighborhoods with higher percentages of people with low incomes, people of color, and immigrants are in greater proximity to industrial hazards and waste sites. They experience higher levels of air toxicity and drinking water contamination. Nearly half of kids in immigrant families live in households with low incomes, making them more likely to live in these neighborhoods.

Furthermore, poorer housing quality leaves families more exposed to natural disasters and other impacts caused by the changing climate, such as extreme heat. The combined impacts of these environmental inequities lead to increased risk for long-term health issues, such as asthma, impaired brain development, kidney failure, and cancer.

At the same time, immigrants also face unique barriers to seeking care due to policy restrictions. They are largely barred from a range of health care coverage depending on their immigration status. Under current law, people with lawful permanent resident (LPR) status must wait five years before being able to access health care through critical supports like Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Only a limited number of states offer some exceptions for children and pregnant women.

Individuals who are undocumented or have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status are almost entirely barred from health care coverage through Medicaid, CHIP, and Affordable Care Act (ACA) Marketplace coverage. Over six million children live in immigrant families that are subject to these barriers.

The vast majority of children in immigrant families are U.S. citizens. But when their parents face barriers to care, children’s health may suffer. U.S. citizen children with an immigrant parent are nearly twice as likely to be uninsured than their peers with U.S. citizen parents. Immigration enforcement actions and policies, including concerns related to the public charge policy, have also created a chilling effect for children in immigrant families accessing care.

The prolonged exposure to environmental inequities combined with health care hurdles has serious long-term impacts for children and their development. Not being able to get care to address chronic conditions means children in immigrant families disproportionately rely on emergency rooms while their health worsens. Those unmet health care needs can also hurt children’s school success. Asthma, for example, is one of the leading causes of absenteeism from school.

Without access to critical programs like Medicaid and CHIP, many immigrants can’t afford the costly health care needed to treat chronic health conditions, which are often created or exacerbated by the environments they live in. These problems are avoidable. It is imperative that policymakers solve this by providing access to health care to address existing systemic barriers. They must also find solutions to the root causes of environmental inequities to protect the health of immigrant families in the future.