Covering the Health Care Fight

Alarmist reporting turns immigrants away from social services, officials say

November 28, 2018

Since early 2017, English-language news outlets in the US have published numerous stories about a series of leaked draft regulations that would limit immigration to the US in profound ways, based on prospective immigrants’ supposed “likelihood of requiring public assistance.” The rules sought to potentially deport legal immigrants for using social services and to incorporate previously excluded benefits, such as health-insurance subsidies and the earned-income tax credit, into the government’s determinations of which prospective immigrants are likely to become a “public charge.” The proposed regulation, Politico reported in September “would effectively gentrify the legal immigration system, blocking poorer immigrants from obtaining green cards or even from entering the country in the first place.”

One draft of the regulation leaked in early 2018 proposed expanding the limitations specifically to people who use food aid, including nutrition assistance from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). A generally uncontroversial program that serves approximately 50 percent of all infants in the US, WIC provides formula, diapers, and breastfeeding tutorials, among other benefits, to low-income adult caregivers.

In late September, the Department of Homeland Security finally released an official version of the proposed rule, which was covered widely in US media, excluding WIC from public-charge determinations. And even before that, reporting from major English-language US outlets made clear, use of benefits would not affect immigration decisions. But many immigrants don’t get their news from major English-language outlets. Instead, officials from WIC tell CJR in a phone call, they turn to foreign-language and ethnic media, and in some cases the alarmist reporting they found there may have persuaded them to turn away from programs like WIC.

Statistics provide some support for the WIC officials’ claims about the ubiquity and influence of ethnic media: in 2006, according to a Pew report, 29 million adults in the US preferred ethnic media to mainstream English-language outlets, and immigrants generally preferred to receive news in their own language. More than 65 million US residents speak at least one language in addition to English, according to US Census data, the most common being Spanish.

New York City alone has more than 250 ethnic publications releasing information in more than 30 languages, according to a 2013 study by the CUNY Center for Community and Ethnic Media. Nearly a quarter of the city’s residents rely on non-English languages to communicate, says CCEM Co-Director Jehangir Khattak.

According to José Zamora, senior vice president of news strategic communications at the Spanish-language network Univision, Spanish-language outlets reach more than 90 percent of Hispanic households.

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Plus, “there is greater interest in the ethnic media in covering the policies of the Trump administration and how it impacts those communities,” says Vincent Eng, a consultant for the Asian & American and Pacific Islander American Health Forum, a health-advocacy organization.

In the case of the draft immigration rules, English-language articles about the leaks trickled down to foreign-language news sources, stirring up sometimes unwarranted anxiety, says Douglas Greenaway, the president and CEO of the National WIC Association (NWA), a nonprofit advocacy arm of the program. “They were not always accurate in their reporting,” Greenaway says of these foreign-language outlets, “which created much of the alarm among families.” Although it’s unclear how much effect this had, this September, Politico reported that following the publication of the leaked executive orders and news reports on the proposal, a growing number of women had unenrolled from programs such as WIC.

According to Brian Dittmeier, the NWA’s state government affairs counsel, hundreds of participants called or came in to clinics around the country, indicating that they had seen updates about the program in foreign-language media, some of which have “misstated or overrepresented the public charge issue,” Dittmeier says. These reports have caused panic among Asian and Hispanic populations in particular, leading to some unenrollments. Participants requested to have “their names and information completely removed from the WIC system—not simply to drop out,” adds Sarah Diaz, WIC’s California policy and media coordinator. “And some of them wanted to return their WIC vouchers or attempt to pay back benefits they had received.”

This February, NWA officials report, a woman in Los Angeles returned WIC food checks after reading about the proposed executive order in the Korea Times. She said she didn’t want her receipt of WIC benefits to affect her husband’s application for a green card. The Korea Times could not be reached, after multiple attempts, for comment.

In April, Dittmeier says, a woman in New York, with two children on WIC, who learned about the proposed rule through Spanish-language news, returned food checks out of fear that receiving WIC benefits would affect her citizenship application.

Particularly alarming to WIC staff, says Diaz, is a September 9, 2018 report, based only on leaked information, that was broadcast on a New York Univision station in which an attorney advises undocumented immigrants to get off programs like WIC. (Separately, Eng references a lawyer interviewed on a local Spanish-language station in California who also urged WIC participants to unenroll to avoid losing their green cards.) Zamora acknowledges that the lawyer did initially urge people to unenroll from WIC but later clarified the advice, and he notes that the story included a statement from the head of WIC at the end of the segment. “We are extremely careful with everything we report on, especially on those issues, because it can lead to panic,” Zamora says. In this case, he adds, he understands concerns that “people are panicked because of our content, but that’s not necessarily because it’s misinformation.”

The issue, Eng says, is difficult to track across Asian-American media, because information is disseminated in a range of languages across various media outlets. “What we do see,” he says, is that the issue is being “heavily discussed.”

Recently, WIC clinic staff received a document from an employee at the Community Clinic Association of Los Angeles County, containing six links collected over the course of three days in August 2018 from various Korean news reports, claiming that green-card applicants would be rejected if their dependent children were enrolled in Medi-Cal, an ACA insurance plan, or SNAP. An August email by an unnamed Korean WIC nutrition assistant to the program’s California office cited similar reports by the local station AM 1650 Radio Seoul. When contacted, the radio station declined to comment.

It’s difficult for officials to reach out to specific program participants who might be concerned, officials claim, and so far WIC has surveyed only its staff on the reasons for calls and messages from participants. Only one state, Indiana—which excludes non-citizens 18 years and older from WIC—asks for or considers immigration status when awarding these benefits, Greenaway explains. And WIC staff do not collect data from participants on their immigration status. “We view this as a positive thing,” Greenaways says. “If families had to answer those questions, it would be a significant deterrent to participation.”

So as such misinformation spreads, the role of correcting it is also largely left to ethnic-media outlets. To mitigate the spread of misinformation around changes to immigration laws, including WIC, Univision makes brief “explainer” videos. In the absence of sourced original reporting, another possible solution to the problem, both Zamora and Eng agree, is for outlets either to simply reprint reporting from major English-language media outlets—as many Asian-American outlets, such as the LA-based newspapers Korea Times and the Chinese-language World Journal, have been doing.

As the federal government continues to weigh this regulation—and in light of the Trump administration’s continued focus on policies that are likely to disproportionately affect immigrant and foreign-language-speaking populations—foreign and ethnic media outlets will face a greater challenge and responsibility in keeping much of the American population responsibly informed. “We have a very unique role,” says Zamora.

Khushbu Shah is a freelance journalist in Atlanta covering immigration, politics, and social justice. She previously covered officer-involved shootings, the migrant caravan, and worked on the team investigating Hurricane Maria's death toll in Puerto Rico as a field producer for CNN.