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Last Measures: Undocumented Immigrants and The Unsafe Underground Healthcare

by Hugo Amador


On a cold winter Tuesday in February, hidden in the cupboards among many convenience stores in suburbs around the country, you can find antacids, painkillers, and over-the-counter antibiotics being sold for a mere $20. With flu season at its peak, many of these stores profit off uninsured individuals who resort to over-the-counter medication. The first antibiotics were developed in the 1920s and then used in World War I and II to treat wounded soldiers. Due to its high success rate antibiotics became available to the public around the mid-century. Albeit, with growing concerns regarding abuse that lead to growing rates of antibiotic resistance, all antibiotics required a prescription from a healthcare professional. Yet, one population continues to defy these regulations: undocumented immigrants.

In the 21st century, many demographics suffer from a lack of equitable healthcare to cover costs for treatments and medications. Among them primarily being undocumented immigrants residing in the United States. As a result, many undocumented individuals have resorted to unsafe use of over-the-counter antibiotics and treatments. Dr. Larissa Grigoryan, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, disclosed that most, if not all, of these individuals, are obtaining antibiotics without prescription in the U.S. from flea markets, health food stores, friends, pet stores, or online. “These findings matter,” said Dr. Grigoryan. “Unlike most drugs that affect only an individual patient if used incorrectly, misuse of antibiotics can harm others by increasing the risk of antimicrobial resistance, a growing global health threat.”


The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic exponentially shut out many immigrant populations out of necessary health care services, which in turn led them to further, unsafe measures. Among flea markets around the country, vendors sold $25 injections of the steroid dexamethasone, antibiotics, in addition to anti-parasitic drugs such as ivermectin as “treatments” for SARS-CoV-2.


However, this phenomenon has been reported for decades. In Queens, New York, an undocumented mother arrived in the U.S. with her son in 2004. She showed up at an emergency room after her son had gone into anaphylactic shock after taking an over-the-counter treatment labeled as an antibiotic. The recent COVID-19 pandemic further surfaced the public health issue surrounding immigrant populations in the new decade. About 20 percent of Hispanic people in the United States lack health insurance – the proportion is vastly greater among undocumented Immigrants.


Undocumented populations that resort to unproven measures as health treatments go beyond the current political climate and politicization of science. For immigrants specifically, the gap of health and income between them and the rest of the U.S population is more defined than it has ever been before. With the criminalization of immigrants with the present U.S. immigration policy, many of these individuals have developed fear and distrust of health institutions due to the anti-immigrant climate that has sprouted in the last three decades.


In 2010, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act established under the Obama administration extended health insurance coverage to many uninsured individuals – all but undocumented immigrants residing in the United States. The present policies, in addition to language barriers, low socioeconomic status, and fear related to the anti-immigrant political climate have all exacerbated the lack of contact undocumented individuals have with the healthcare system. As such, the rate of those relying on unproven measures of treatment for their illnesses has likewise skyrocketed in the last thirty years.


Dr. Kathleen Page, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, highlighted how health professionals usually face this issue. “I’m not upset at patients when they tell me what they’ve taken,” Dr. Page told the New York Times. “I’m upset about the system that makes it easier for them to get help from nontraditional places than from regular health care.”


Illnesses, or novel viruses for that matter, have shone a light on the many glass barriers undocumented immigrants face in proper access to managing their health in the United States. Many have fled or abandoned their home countries abroad in hopes of paving a new, healthier life in the states. However, the recent struggles of living undocumented have left the roughly 46 million individuals asking one common question: am I entitled to my human rights? Or are they to be granted by this new land I call home?

Hugo Amador is an undergraduate student at Cornell University. He is currently studying cellular & molecular biology, journalism, and Latin American studies. After being born and raised in Honduras, Hugo moved to the United States in flee against gang violence where he has worked with many organizations in research/advocacy – primarily towards immigrant and refugee populations. He has given many TEDx talks, having his talks published with global organizations, and has also worked on clinical research within immigrant populations in the New York metropolitan area along with an infectious disease team. Hugo is the recipient of prestigious and competitive academic fellowships, such as the Cornell Commitment Fellowship, and is the founder of Hugo’s Movement, a not-for-profit that advocates for the access to equitable healthcare, education, and liberty of victims of war and gang violence, primarily immigrant children and adolescents. Hugo can be reached at