Some immigrant parents in South Carolina are forgoing health care services for their children, including immunizations, for fear they will be separated from their families and deported, one South Carolina public health advocate said. 

"We’ve gotten calls from the health department of mothers not coming to ... appointments, not showing up for immunizations," said Julie Smithwick, executive director of the Latino assist group known as PASOs. Her statewide group focuses its outreach on the Latino population and connects patients to health care resources across South Carolina. 

Smithwick was recently recognized as a Health Equity Hero by the national organization DentaQuest for her work with PASOs. 

She said approximately 10 percent of all South Carolina children ages newborn to 5 are Latino, and "that’s grown every year."

Many of these children qualify for government-sponsored health care benefits, including Medicaid, immunizations and the Women, Infants and Children program, which provides free baby formula and food to qualifying families. But some Latino parents have recently opted their children out of these resources, Smithwick said.

"Right now, immigrants are facing a lot of challenges," said Smithwick, who is based in Columbia. "There's a lot of fear out there. Folks don’t know what's true and what’s not."

Between January and April, numbers provided by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control show an average 265 Hispanic participants missed scheduled appointments each month for the Women, Infants and Children program.

During the same four months last year, DHEC reported fewer missed appointments – an average 237 per month – although numbers provided by the agency for 2014 and 2015 show that monthly missed appointments hover closer to the 2017 average.

A spokeswoman for the South Carolina Medicaid agency said staff currently are unable to determine how enrollment among Latino children has changed. 

Like Smithwick, advocates in other states have expressed similar concerns.

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Kaiser Health News recently reported that some foreign-born Californians are reluctant to sign their children up for Medicaid policies "out of concern that personal information may be used to deport families." Respondents in an April survey indicated "the recent federal debate about immigration has caused significant fear among immigrant families" in California. 

According to The Associated Press, the number of immigrants arrested since President Donald Trump took office has substantially increased, but the number of immigrants deported has declined.  

"Most of those arrested had criminal convictions, but one in four arrested immigrants did not," the AP reported. 

Smithwick underscored that many Latino children in South Carolina legally qualify for health care services and she encouraged parents to enroll the children.

"They have a right to receive these services for their kids, who are American citizens," she said. "If you’ve got a bunch of kids who aren’t getting the services that they need, it could affect the whole population."

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598. 

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