Public Health encourages immigrant clients to access services without fear

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(información en español)

All people should feel safe when they get health services.

Unfortunately, recent federal immigration proposals have made people in immigrant communities feel more fear and stress. Some families feel they must choose between two risks. Should they avoid a clinic and possibly risk their health? Or should they risk an encounter with federal immigration agents?

It’s very unlikely that federal immigration agents would search our clinics for someone. But, just in case, Public Health – Seattle & King County has taken steps to strengthen the protections for all clients at our health clinics.

  • We’ve strengthened the privacy of clients by designating our clinics as private areas including waiting areas. We posted signs that make it clear that these spaces are designated private.
  • With this policy in place, federal immigration officers now need a valid judicial (court) search warrant to take any action in our clinics.
  • We’ve trained employees at our clinics to identify a valid judicial search warrant. Federal immigration agents may not enter a clinic without a valid warrant.
  • We’re training reception staff and other employees to be prepared and better serve immigrant families.

Our local Public Health department operates clinics across King County. The clinics provide health care services for a wide range of people. For example, we serve:

  • lower-income pregnant women and their families
  • women and men who need birth control and tests and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases
  • children and adults who are unable to access dental care elsewhere

Protecting privacy

All of our clinics protect patient privacy. This is required by HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). We do not disclose personal information, unless ordered by a court or requested by a patient.

Private Area signWe do not keep records of the immigration status of people seeking services, except in rare cases where a disease investigation requires that information. (Even then, the information is part of the patient’s private record, protected under HIPAA.)

We’re now focusing on the waiting areas at our clinics, which used to operate in a gray area between private and public spaces. Our policy and our signs now make it clear that these spaces are designated private.

Training employees — just in case

The reason federal immigration agents are unlikely to search our clinics is that federal policy classifies health care sites as “sensitive locations” that immigration agents should generally avoid. However, we have trained our clinic supervisors (and other employees) about how to respond if a federal immigration agent comes to one of our clinics.

Our supervisors are learning the difference between types of search warrants. Sometimes federal agents have warrants that do not give them the right to enter private areas. Our employees are learning to respond appropriately within the limits of federal law.

We also are providing basic “Know Your Rights” pamphlets to help our clients.

For many years, immigrants have arrived in King County looking for safety and a better future. They have established strong relationships with their neighbors, opened businesses, enriched the vibrancy of our communities, and contributed to our vital economic growth. For King County to remain a beacon of opportunity, we must ensure that immigrants have access to vital health and social services.

All who need services are welcome at King County’s health clinics.

(Published on 7/20/17)

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I'm part of the communications team at Public Health - Seattle & King County and work closely with all of the programs in the Community Health Services Division.