Criticize harmful national origin data collection bill

source: Wednesday March 28th, 2018 GRA by Ye Pogue

The Connecticut legislature held a March 8 hearing on Senate Bill 359, an act that called for banning ethnic subgroup data disaggregation in the Connecticut education system. As a Ph.D. candidate in Social Policy who studies mental health and trauma,  I was invited by the bill’s supporters to testify on the damage a potential data collection program would impose on students, parents and teachers.

This March, three bills were introduced into the Connecticut Legislature on the ethnic origin data collection issue. The hearing for the first bill was scheduled the second day of a snow storm; I drafted my husband for this hundred-mile ride. I was able to join the 500 allies of the bill who were mostly Chinese parents with their American children. The children distributed small scarves to supporters that resembled American flags. Their cheerful, yet serious young faces made them appear more mature than their age.

In the past six months, the Chinese immigrant community has been actively engaged in opposing national origin data collection. One day after the hearing, another bill was introduced in the Public Health Committee, calling for detailed ethnic subgroup data collection in order to address health disparities. The bill was considered racist by many because whites were exempted from this ethnic subgroup data collection. Chinese immigrants in Connecticut quickly organized a group of physicians, statisticians and other concerned individuals to testify against the bill. I submitted a letter as well.

From what I learned from social media, due to the large number of bills scheduled for hearings that day, people coming to advocate on behalf of this particular bill waited until midnight. One of the major arguments supporting ethnic data disaggregation is that immigrants from Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia came to United States as refugees because of war and political persecution. As a result, they endured traumas and hardships that affect their overall well-being. Advocates sincerely believe that ethnic and national origin disaggregation can address the health disparity.

I feel very personally connected with these refugees who fled their homes because what they went through was very similar to what my family experienced. During the Cultural Revolution in China, my grandparents were sent to a labor camp for 10 years, leaving their three sons to grow up without their parents. My grandmother spent the rest of her life criticizing the communist government, and I was her captive audience. Even though I was born 10 years after the Cultural Revolution, these horrific images and stories were carved into my heart.  I came to the U.S. as an international student; however, in my heart I am still that child whose family so desperately wanted to flee the country but failed to do so. When I passed the security check at U.S. customs, I felt like a burden had been lifted because the people who had perished could finally rest in peace. Trauma can carry over for generations, and it leads to adverse health outcomes; I see these traumas manifested in my family. I have loved ones who have died by suicide or are disabled because of their mental illnesses. The claws of intergenerational trauma have a hold on my generation as well.

However, ethnic data disaggregation is not the solution. National origin cannot and should not be used as a tool to identify any specific health need. For example, not every Cambodian immigrant is a refugee, and not every refugee develops trauma-related illnesses. This same logic applies to Chinese, Syrians, Cubans, Jews and other immigrants who were exposed to tremendous stress and hardship before they immigrated. Linking a specific ethnicity to a certain illness is very dangerous to that community. It attaches a label of “medical burden” to whole communities, and “healthy” people can begin shaming and avoiding people who are sick for weighing down the whole community.

For people with mental health needs, health care providers conduct background screenings, and always ask for a detailed family history and personal history. If someone is a refugee or child of a refugee either from mainland China, Cambodia, or Rwanda, health care providers will know. People tell their needs and personal stories to their healthcare providers because there is always a basic level of trust between doctor and patient.

Many advocates may overlook the fact that immigrants do not trust the government as much as native-born citizens. A national origin data collection program can cause a psychological burden. Government data collection is abusive and coercive because of the huge power the state wields over individuals. Many refugees fled home because of government oppression. Communities that have experienced brutality at the hands of their own country can feel betrayed if doctors are asking for private information on the government’s behalf. When feeling threatened, patients either skip the question if they can, or opt to skip the treatment appointment entirely.

More importantly,  dividing disease burden by national origin can cause grave long-term consequences, such as immigration restriction. When talking about public health, people tend to think it from a domestic policy perspective and overlook immigration policy. The mission of departments of public health on both the  federal and state level is to reduce the medical burden on U.S. soil. Scholars and advocates focus on treatment for the sick and epidemic prevention by monitoring international travelers. The Department of Homeland Security also has an obligation to protect public health, which they have the sole right to enforce. They could determine “if a foreign national meets the health-related standards for admissibility.”

Every immigrant who wants to obtain the status of permanent resident will have to go through a complex immigration physical exam, and many health conditions are render one “inadmissible.” For people with mental illnesses and trauma experience, their immigration physical exam can be very tough. Histories of self-harm or suicide attempts are considered a red flag for immigration. Additionally, having a history of substance use disorders is a deal breaker. If a person is taking any antidepressants or mood stabilizers, the doctor will immediately start to grill the person. I know this first-handed because I am a peer counselor for immigrants. I advised many people about their exams and visa interviews. During my own exam, I barely managed to defend myself. The assistants asked loaded questions about my health history and I summoned all my nerve to demand to know the legal ground of asking me, “Did you ever hurt anybody?” Even though I am a human rights activist, this question scared me. If I failed to convince them that I had no intention to hurt myself despite having a mood disorder, then I would have been rejected for a legal residency application.

Immigration systems have the ability to strike down many people with various illnesses. I understand that the American immigration system prefers healthy individuals. However, this government-mandated data collection was not designed as a representative sample, and will not be carried out by professionals or community members. Therefore, the program will produce poor quality data that will not yield reliable results about disease burden.

With these flawed “disease burden by national origin” data, immigrants can be easily “ranked,” and some immigrants are bound to fall into the bottom category. The federal government can implement a stricter screening targeted at applicants from certain countries for public health concerns. It is entirely legal and not considered anti-immigration. Currently, the U.S. is having an immigration crisis, with President Donald Trump saying he welcomes immigrants from certain countries, like Norway, but not from some others. He made a hugely offensive statement about Haitians, that they “all have AIDS,” according to a Dec. 23, 2017 New York Times article. The President’s comments are especially risky because people with certain illnesses, such as AIDS, are indeed inadmissible to U.S. soil.

The third Connecticut bill was introduced in the Judiciary Committee on March 20 to restrict ethnic data collection. The bill’s sponsor advocated on our behalf; however, the final legislative language was considered to legitimize the practice of dividing immigrants by place of birth. Hearing our concerns, the bill was withdrawn a day later. Most likely, none of the three bills will be made into law, and Chinese immigrants are considering this a victory. Finally, our voices were heard. Instead of being treated as data points to be studied, all we want is to be respected.

(This article was originally published on the Justice, Brandeis University’s Independent Student Newspaper Since 1949, Waltham, MA)

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