Sedgwick County would violate federal rules if it began asking some health clinic clients about their immigration or citizenship status, federal authorities warn.
Asking participants in a federal nutrition program – Women, Infants and Children – about their legal status could put federal grant dollars for the entire health department at risk, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials said in emails obtained by The Eagle.
“The county should not be asking WIC clients about their citizenship status because it has no bearing on WIC eligibility,” Jeanette Montano, a regional WIC official for the Food and Nutrition Service, wrote in an Oct. 29 email to state WIC director David Thomason. “If they ask for additional information from WIC clients, in any form, they would be out of compliance … and subject to legal action.”
Evelyn McGregor, the regional civil rights director for the Food and Nutrition Service, said in the same email that “a question regarding immigration status will have a chilling adverse effect on applicants statewide for no reason and can be perceived as national origin discrimination.”
Pregnant women and new mothers are eligible for WIC – which provides checks for foods like milk, eggs, cereal, cheese and baby formula – based on residency and income. The county asked the state to block illegal immigrants from the program in October, but there is no eligibility requirement based on immigration status.
Commissioners asked county staff in the fall to craft a form asking all people who use the county health department about their immigration or citizenship status. They say they want to collect data to learn who the department serves, not to deny services that range from immunizations to tuberculosis exams.
Commissioner Jim Howell said the USDA was making assumptions about the motives and consequences of using the form.
“When we take federal money on these types of programs, it limits our ability to do commonsense things,” Howell said. “It’s unfortunate the federal government would try to control us with threats of defunding.”
But staff from the Denver regional office of the Food and Nutrition Service noted in the email that sharing personal information, like citizenship status, beyond WIC staff would be a violation of federal law.
The inquiry could also violate the Civil Rights Restoration Act and open the county to legal action, which could cost it federal grant money, McGregor wrote.
“The entire department of health, including programs outside of WIC will be found to be in noncompliance,” McGregor wrote.
What the form could say
County staff said in October that they hoped to have a form ready to use by Jan. 1.
A draft of the questionnaire was included in a letter sent to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Dec. 1 by county counselor Eric Yost.
The top reads: “The information obtained from these questions will be used to assess the needs of our community. You are not required to answer these questions. Your responses will not be used by the Sedgwick County Health Department for any other purpose.”
The draft asks the respondent to mark an “X” as a United States citizen, a United States national or a qualified alien. Respondents could also mark categories labeled “unknown” or “prefer not to answer.”
The form asks whether the respondent is 18 years or older. If so, it asks whether the person has a valid Kansas driver’s license or a photo ID.
Yost wrote that the form would be a stand-alone document and “would not contain any identifying information and would be stored apart from the participant’s medical records.”
Yost wants clarification from the state about how to interpret the federal response to the county’s proposal. He also asked in his Dec. 1 letter whether the state agency would take any legal action against the county.
“We haven’t heard back to know from KDHE what they would do regarding our grants that they provide us with and whether or not they would come after us legally for that,” Yost said last week.
Split views over ‘chilling’ effect
Several immigration and social justice groups in the state oppose the county’s use of such a questionnaire.
They say it would act as a soft form of discrimination even if people aren’t turned away at the door based on their status.
“Simply asking the question, putting it on the government-issued form, exercises intimidation,” said Micah Kubic of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas. “And it’s enough to dissuade people from using the service. It has a suppressive impact.”
Commissioners in favor of the idea say the data will help them better understand who they are serving.
“Taxpaying citizens have a right to know how we provide services and who we provide them to,” Howell said.
“When people see the anonymity of this, they probably would answer the question. They would have nothing to fear,” Howell added. “I think people will quickly learn this is no big deal.”
Commissioners Tim Norton and Dave Unruh oppose using the form.
“Our job is to appropriately manage the grants and resources we have to keep our community healthy,” Unruh said. “Our role is not to try to be the Border Patrol.”
Chairman Richard Ranzau, who created the proposal, said he doesn’t know whether the form will discourage people from going to the health department.
“I can’t predict it,” Ranzau said. “But, even if they did, what’s wrong with them going to the private sector clinics?”
“Why would it have a chilling effect unless illegal aliens are getting these types of services at taxpayer expense?” he said.
Howell said use of the form probably would disprove assumptions about illegal immigrants consuming public services.
“There’s an assumption that we’re spending huge amounts of our resources on illegal immigrants and I don’t think it’s true,” he said. “… I think with a little bit of data, we can put this myth to bed.”