On Immigration Status and Health Justice: A Conversation with Imelda Plascencia at Latino Coalition for a Healthy California

I had the pleasure of speaking with Imelda Plascencia, the consulting Health Policy Outreach Manager at Latino Coalition for a Healthy California (LCHC) for the second issue of WhyHunger’s 2017 Nourishing Change Newsletter. The newsletter is broadly framed around sharing information and resources to enrich our conversations and efforts to organize for the right to food. In this May issue, the content focuses on the intersection of hunger and immigration.

We began our conversation talking about WhyHunger’s work. I explained the intent of a newsletter framed around the right to food, and how WhyHunger supports food access organizations shift from a charity model to a food justice model. Imelda had some great thoughts on charity: “Charity work is band-aid care. You’re covering the wound, not changing the circumstances that cause the injury. It’s going to happen again and charity band-aids sustain the violence and lack of access communities are experiencing, instead of transforming them. Social justice and health justice models are the answer, because they provide opportunities to change the conditions of oppression.”

Themes that ran through our conversation include the need for systemic change, and the need for organizations to address the root causes of social justice issues. Organizing and building with people and communities can be difficult for organizations, so it’s necessary to build your team with members of the community. In Imelda’s case, since LCHC is a statewide organization, the strength of their work lies in the relationships they build. As their name indicates, the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California does work with the Latinx community and they also work with non-Latino communities as well because, as Imelda said, “It’s a unique lens and not the only lens.”

At Imelda’s previous position at the Dream Resource Center of the UCLA Labor Center, Imelda developed various programs with and for undocumented communities and really learned the importance of health in social justice and movement building work. Imelda said: “Mental health is so important because we are not only in a physical battle for access and protections; this is very much a psychological battle. We need to believe and remember our individual and collective strength and health allows us to see that.”

Imelda explained that the LCHC’s mission went into high gear because the ACA (Affordable Care Act) doesn’t cover undocumented people so they work with local and state partners to be a state that does. LCHC accomplishes their mission by “building advocacy for high quality, culturally relevant, and linguistically appropriate health care and prevention services; informing the public to make choices that favor better health outcomes; and empowering communities to fully participate in health planning, implementation, evaluation, and advocacy.” Imelda began to engage in health justice which is inclusive of mental health work. By addressing the inequities in quality of health care and the intersections of access to care, access to food and access to water, LCHC recognizes the systemic issues we need to address. As Imelda said: “Being undocumented, you realize your life is full of systemic barriers.” These barriers to opportunities and personal safety make it difficult for many undocumented individuals to move forward in the process of changing their status to documented resident.

Imelda went on to give examples of two clients they had spoken to –both straight males. These clients articulated the weight of the responsibility that is placed on males for the household. They talked about how they see their work as a contribution to their family and not having the option of losing that because “my family is depending on me. My risk is not for me; it’s for my entire family, for our livelihood.” Imelda went on to explain why: “The gender dynamics and those cultural expectations can be limiting to who you really are and what you want to do. The stagnation of not being able to move from where you’re at; the level of comfort and familiarity that comes with being undocumented or a permanent resident and having to come out and to share that lack of citizenship is difficult. Even though it leads to access to institutions there is a hesitance there.”

The reason Imelda shifted from working mainly on immigrant rights to health justice while still supporting immigrant rights and advocacy was because “it’s a mental battle that we’re also fighting and one of the things I always credit Maya Rodriguez, a veteran immigrant youth organizer, with saying is “We are a much stronger movement when we are a healed people.”

Imelda shared how as an undocumented person themselves, they have come in and out of depression and there is a need for health to be foundational to our social justice movement. It is a part of their strength as a people and therefore, Imelda really grounds the work in health. The fear, anxiety, and depression that immigrant communities experience continues to be highlighted in the media and Imelda urges that while yes, there is a lot of heartbreak, devastation and pain, there is also a lot of strength, courage and bravery that should be highlighted. Many undocumented individuals do not know that they’re eligible for services. It takes courage to pursue help so organizations have to be vocal about the assistance they are able to provide to their communities. Focus on keeping people informed and encouraging people to develop a plan, have the number of a lawyer, and organize. This fear and anxiety about immigration status is not new, so we need to reach those individuals and communities that haven’t felt it as heavily as others and maybe haven’t had time to process because they’re constantly working and being exploited.

Imelda went on to say: “When it comes to being supported in ideas and projects that I have, it is helpful to be a part of an organization and it is key to use the privilege and power you have in having access to resources, access to people that are in positions of power and not taking that for granted and strategically work to build together. The difference in privilege being a privilege or a burden is choice. I continuously and proactively choose to use my privilege and that’s a part of creating change.”

We wrapped up our conversation elaborating more on the connection between immigration status and health, whether undocumented or in process of getting paperwork. How health can get worse the longer you’re in the U.S. and the stressors that go along with that. Imelda explained that when it comes to health justice, there are 3 layers:

● Health in a clinical setting, in terms of access and what care is provided
● Health access in terms of access to food and water
● Mental health

All are intertwined. What is taking place in the current political climate is definitely impacting the health of immigrant communities and Imelda shared about hearing stories from their clinic partners about individuals coming in with stomach pains and elsewhere in their body and how when they run tests, they find that there is nothing physically wrong with them. The physical pain is a sign of the inner turmoil happening and the emotional and mental distress being caused by high tension and high levels of stress. Of course, this includes family members such as children being scared to go to school because of the thought that when they come home their parents will no longer be there, having been detained.

Imelda commented that the idea that people are trying to take advantage of the system when they are the scapegoats of economic uncertainty in the United States is ridiculous. Imelda concluded by saying: “To me that shows that we [the immigrant community] are very powerful. I never saw documentation as a means to liberation; it’s a means for basic human rights. It is access to basic needs; access to healthcare, water, food. The work with communities around health is for us as a people, as community members, for our families. The work is to provide people with what they already deserve.”