When undocumented immigrants living in rural areas in the Rio Grande Valley get sick, they must weigh their options: Drive to the doctor and risk being pulled over or stay home and hope the illness goes away?

Driving to see a doctor is risky for undocumented immigrants given that a routine traffic stop can lead to deportation. Even traveling to grocery stores to buy nutritious foods can potentially land them in a situation far greater than they anticipated. Amid this public health crisis, La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) is working with community members to confront the negative impacts of immigration enforcement on the border.

When LUPE administered a survey to colonia residents, they were able to identify the top five health issues that lie in these communities where access to health care is limited: Diabetes, high blood pressure, mental health, women’s health, and mosquito-borne diseases.

All five of these health issues require driving to routine check-ups, but taking preventative measures is often avoided for fear of coming into contact with immigration enforcement. This fear is not unfounded given that DPS collaborates with immigration enforcement agencies to “make it easier” to deport undocumented immigrants, as San Antonio Express News reported in June.

“That’s part of people’s caution when they’re trying to decide whether to go to a doctor visit or to go to the grocery store for healthier food versus going to the neighborhood store where there is more processed food and no fresh food,” said John-Michael Torres, communications coordinator at LUPE.

More than half of the Valley is considered a food desert, according to Texas A&M University Health Science Center. Food deserts are typically within rural areas where residents have to travel at least 10 miles in order to be able to access fresh produce.

To help undocumented immigrants navigate these complexities, LUPE is broadening their regular health promotion and health education with a new curriculum based on nutrition and physical activity. The name of the course is “Salud Con Sabor Latino,” a program that has proven to be successful in other parts of the US, including New Mexico. Salud Con Sabor Latino will be modified for Valley residents.

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“We are going into the holiday season pretty soon, so we are going to be giving classes that teach traditional recipes but with healthy alternatives rather than telling people to stop eating a certain type of food or meal,” Cristina Leal, the communications outreach coordinator at LUPE, said. “It is easier for people to [incorporate] this into their lifestyles.

In cases where health issues are more urgent, mobile health clinics are typically a way for people to see a doctor without having to travel. Leal said mobile health clinics are the main source of health care for many undocumented immigrants in the Valley. Primary care mobile health clinics park in colonias, and they reduce the need for people to drive to doctor visits for health services.

However, by the end of September, LUPE will no longer be in partnership with a Valley care clinic by South Texas Health System.

“We just found out that the health program that we have been working with for over three years, in which we served over 5,000 people, is going to come to an end,” said Leal. “It is ending abruptly so we are looking for new partnerships in order to continue bringing services to the colonias.”

Leal lamented that a new administration at the South Texas Health System is ending the partnership and moving the mobile clinics to “another program that will be for profit.” She said that mobile clinics were some people’s only resort to seeing healthcare professionals, so LUPE will be looking to solidify a new partnership in order to continue providing health care resources.

“There’s a great need in the Valley and we want to be able to help people access health care for free,” said Leal. Government welfare is not an option for people who are undocumented, contrary to a common myth spread by anti-immigrant groups.

With proven success stories throughout the past three years, LUPE hopes to see real changes within the community despite the growing numbers of families who have stopped seeking medical attention due to the fear sparked by increased immigration enforcement.

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Learn more about LUPE at lupenet.org.

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