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Immigrants Health Suffers After Coming to the US

June 10, 2008 - 7:30am
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Immigrants’ Health Suffers After Coming to the US

image As of 2003, the estimated foreign-born population in the U.S. was 33.5 million, representing 11.7% of the country’s population. Approximately 53% of these immigrants hail from Latin America, 25% from Asia, 14% from Europe, and another 8% from other areas of the world. While people across the globe obviously move to the U.S. with hopes of an improved standard of living, to the contrary, research is showing that one key aspect of their quality of life—namely health—may actually be diminished here in the states. Below are outlined a few of the major health risks immigrants face.

Super-sized Living

America’s fatty fast foods and super-sized portions are high on the list of health hazards for immigrants. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that, over time, American-style eating habits can take their toll. Eight percent of immigrants who had lived in the US for less than one year were found to be obese; that figure increased to 19% among those who were residents for at least 15 years. Lack of education regarding principles of proper eating habits and detrimental effects of fast food diet on health only further deepens the effects of super-sized living.

Poor diet isn’t the only cause of weight gain among immigrants, however. Lack of physical activity—for example, hours spent sitting in front of TV or computer screens can also contribute. Increased use of labor-saving machinery at home and in the workplace could be another factor.

]]>Obesity]]> can lead to a variety of health issues, including ]]>diabetes]]> and ]]>heart disease]]> . Researchers say diet and exercise counseling could help combat immigrants’ weight problems. However, they have also discovered that immigrants are less likely than native residents to discuss diet and exercise with their doctors.

Job-related Hazards

The job front is another place where health hazards lurk. Immigrants often take temporary jobs or jobs other Americans don’t want. Sometimes, it is because they don’t know much English. Other times, it is due to a lack of education. Those who are not legal US citizens also have a hard time finding desirable jobs.

Thus, many immigrants work in mines, factories, at construction sites or on farms. Their jobs can at times be dangerous. On-the-job exposure to hazardous chemicals is one problem, says a report published in Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal . Lack of adequate safety training is another.

In addition, many immigrants’ jobs don’t pay much money. The US Census Bureau reports that over 24% of immigrant households made less than $20,000 in 2002. That same year, the number of immigrants living in poverty was more than 16%. US-born residents were better off. Less than 12% were living below poverty level in 2002.

Immigrants with low-paying jobs may not be able to afford adequate housing, and thus may live in quarters that don’t include a proper kitchen. Even if they have a kitchen, working long hours to make ends meet may leave little time to prepare balanced meals. Poor eating habits can result, which, as already mentionesd can then lead to health problems.

Low-paying jobs are also less likely to offer insurance benefits. Because of that, healthcare is unaffordable for many immigrants.

Mental Strain

Moving to the US may strain not only physical health, but mental health as well. Departure from family, friends, and familiar routines can cause a lot of stress. The trials of adjusting to life in a new country can also be a burden. For some, an inability to speak fluent English adds feelings of isolation.

Trouble speaking English can also result in poorer quality healthcare, say researchers. A study published by The Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured found that non-citizen Latino immigrants with limited English skills not only have more problems communicating with their doctors, but are also less likely to use healthcare services. They are more likely to be uninsured as well. In addition to language barriers, immigrants frequently come from very different cultural backgrounds, which may further challenge effective patient-physician communication.

Insurance Issues

Lack of health insurance is a one more obvious problem for many foreign-born US residents. Between 42% and 51% of non-citizens have no health coverage, according to the research organization The Urban Institute. The Institute also reports that 22% of those who are naturalized citizens lack health insurance as well.

Lack of medical coverage leads to sporadic medical care delivered mainly through an emergency room. This type of care by definition concentrates on immediate and urgent needs. Chronic and frequently preventable diseases are therefore neglected and frequently escalate into serious health issues.

Immigrants can encounter many barriers when trying to get insurance coverage. Limited English skills and lack of job-based coverage aren’t the only hurdles. Federal law also restricts many immigrants, especially those who recently entered the country, from qualifying for programs like Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

The Kaiser Commission reports that in 2002, only 14% of immigrants who had lived in the US for less than six years had coverage through Medicaid or SCHIP. Those who had lived in the US for six years or more didn’t fare much better. Only 16% of them were insured.

Even if they qualify for health insurance, many native-born US residents don’t use it. Some have difficulty due to language barriers. Others simply don’t know they qualify. Fear is another factor. Some immigrants worry that if they enroll in insurance programs, their residency or citizenship might be put in jeopardy.

Warning: America may be hazardous to immigrants’ health. Studies show that lifestyle changes associated with moving to the US can contribute to weight gain, diabetes, stress, and other health problems.


Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation

National Immigration Law Center


Carballo, Manuel and Nerukar, Aditi. Migration, Refugees, and Health Risks. Centers for Disease Control website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/EID/vol7no3_supp/carballo.htm . Accessed Nov. 22, 2005.

Goel, Mita Sanghavi; McCarthy, Ellen P.; Phillips, Russell S.; Wee, Christina C. Obesity among US Immigrant Subgroups by Duration of Residence. American Medical Association website. Available at: http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/292/23/2860?maxtoshow=&HITS=10&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=&fulltext=obesity+among+immigrant&searchid=1132746046353_1029&stored_search=&FIRSTINDEX=0&journalcode=jama . Accessed Nov. 23, 2005.

Ku, Leighton; Waidmann, Timothy. How Race/Ethnicity, Immigration Status, and Language Affect Health Insurance Coverage, Access to and Quality of Care Among the Low-income Population. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation website. Available at: http://www.kff.org/uninsured/kcmu4132report.cfm . Accessed Nov. 22, 2005.

Immigrants and Health Coverage: A Primer. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation website. Available at: http://www.kff.org/uninsured/upload/Immigrants-and-Health-Coverage-A-Primer.pdf . Accessed Nov. 22, 2005.

The Foreign Born Population in the United States. US Census Bureau website. Available at: http://www.census.gov/prod/2004pubs/p20-551.pdf . Accessed Nov. 23, 2005.

Last reviewed December 2005 by ]]>Marcin Chwistek, MD]]>

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.