WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas health officials raised concerns about a proposal from a top official of the state’s second most populous county to ask about the immigration status of people seeking immunizations and disease screenings at the county health department clinics, fearing such a move would discourage immigrants from seeking help and jeopardize public health.
Supporters of the proposal before the Sedgwick County Commission say they simply want to collect data to see if immigrants who are living in the country illegally are getting taxpayer-funded services, and said no one would be denied immunizations or other medical care regardless of their legal status. But its opponents contend the practice would scare people away from seeking services from a public health program whose purpose is to prevent the spread of diseases.
No other public health department in the state asks about immigration status, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments said. Two national advocacy groups — the Immunization Action Coalition and the National Immigration Law Center — as well as The National Association of County and City Health Officials said they were unaware of any other public health department in the country that questions people about their legal status.
“It’s just not a serious strategy for improving public health, which should be (and generally is) a county health department’s primary objective. Rather, it would undermine it,” Jenny Rejeske, health policy analyst for the National Immigration Law Center, said in an email.
Kansas does not have any state restrictions on asking for citizenship status, said KDHE spokeswoman Sara Belfry. However, the federal government may have such restrictions and KDHE’s policy says local health departments need to be in compliance with federal policies. The agency’s attorneys are now looking into whether the move by Sedgwick County would jeopardize federal funding for health programs.
“KDHE does not want to deter people from getting the services needed to protect the public health of Kansas,” said spokeswoman Sara Belfry. “KDHE encourages local health departments to follow federal guidelines.”
Sedgwick County Commission Chairman Richard Ranzau, who proposed the idea earlier this month, said preliminary discussions show commissioners are now split 3-2 in favor of asking people about their immigration status. The commission expects to have more discussions on it within a few weeks, but Ranzau said he does not know when the commission might take a final vote to implement it. He insisted the county is just interested in gathering data. Sedgwick County, which encompasses Wichita, is second in population only to Johnson County in suburban Kansas City.
“We made it very clear we wouldn’t deny services, OK? That being said, supporters of illegal immigration will come up with all sorts of reasons why we shouldn’t even ask the question. It is irresponsible not to ask the question,” Ranzau said. “… If in fact it is a public health issue and people are coming here illegally from countries with diseases and they are spreading it, do we not have an obligation to find out? I mean, does the public have a right to know or no?”
He suggested that anyone concerned about it can open their own private clinic that doesn’t ask about legal status.
“Quite frankly, the people are fed up with having to subsidize illegal immigration,” Ranzau said.
But Michelle Ponce, the executive director of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments, said the purpose of public health programs to promote the health of the entire community.
“While immunizations are provided to individuals, the purpose is to prevent transmission of communicable diseases,” Ponce said.
Some countries are still dealing with preventable diseases such as measles and rubella that are rare are in the United States, said Diane Peterson, associate director of the nonprofit Immunization Action Coalition. Travelers as well as immigrants, legal or not, coming from these countries could be harboring the disease and spreading it to others.
“There are enough barriers in the system already for people who don’t come in for needed vaccinations — if they don’t speak the language, if they don’t have insurance coverage, if they don’t have transportation services and then, if they know they will be queried about immigration status, that is just one more barrier to getting services,” Peterson said.
This article was written by Roxana Hegeman from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.