125,000 immigrant youth may be eligible for Medi-Cal

February 25, 2014
By: Public Affairs, UC Berkeley

University of California researchers today released two reports that indicate high need and potential for health coverage among undocumented teens and young adults in the Golden State. The findings trail a bill recently introduced in the California Legislature that calls for healthcare coverage for all Californians regardless of their immigration status.

Person sitting in background with doctor in foregrouond
Researchers found that 69 percent of immigrant youth did not have health insurance. Photo: iStock

Up to 125,000 young immigrants are estimated to be Medi-Cal (the state’s Medicaid program) eligible under state policy, according to a new report, Realizing the Dream for Californians Eligible for DACA: Demographics and Health Coverage released by the UC Berkeley Labor Center, the UCSF Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies, and the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.  DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, provides temporary work authorization and relief from deportation for undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. In California policy, unlike that of most other states, low-income individuals granted Deferred Action are eligible for Medi-Cal.

“This state policy could significantly improve health coverage rates among these young immigrants, increase access to the care they need, and reduce the burden on safety net providers,” says Laurel Lucia, a policy analyst with the UC Berkeley Labor Center. “However, immigrant youth may still face barriers to enrolling because they lack information on the program or fear deportation for themselves or family members.”

Out of the 300,000 undocumented Californians estimated to be eligible the DACA program, approximately 150,000 have applied and been granted Deferred Action. Despite being considered “lawfully present” by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, DACA youth are not eligible for federally-subsidized health programs, such as Medicaid or the new programs created under the Affordable Care Act. 

Big Need

A high need for coverage exists, according the UCLA Labor Center’s Undocumented and UninsuredImmigrant Youth and the Struggle to Access Health Care in California, the first statewide study about and by immigrant youth on health care access. Researchers surveyed 550 immigrant youth throughout the state, including DACA-eligible and undocumented youth.

The UCLA Labor Center researchers found that 69 percent of immigrant youth did not have health insurance, while half delayed getting the medical care they felt they needed in the past year. Nearly all (96 percent) of those delaying care cited cost or lack of insurance as reasons. 

“Without health care, immigrant youth and their families must rely on Band-Aid solutions,” says Imelda Plascencia, one of the report authors.

“They wait for hours at free clinics for partial care or find ways to pool resources with friends and family,” says Plascencia, who also is undocumented. “Whenever they interact with the formal medical system, the fear of deportation is present. These experiences are inhumane.”

While some uninsured Californians eligible for the DACA program will enroll in Medi-Cal or receive job-based coverage through expanded employment opportunities, others will remain uninsured because they lack job-based coverage, are ineligible for Medi-Cal due to income, or have not been approved for DACA, according to the Realizing the Dreamstudy by three UC campuses. They will comprise a fraction of the one million undocumented Californians predicted to remain uninsured this year under the Affordable Care Act.

Possible Solution

Proposed legislation (California Senate Bill 1005) would address this coverage gap for young immigrants and their families by expanding healthcare coverage to all Californians regardless of immigration status.

“California is leading where the federal government is failing to act,” said Senator Ricardo Lara (D- Huntington Park/Long Beach), author of SB 1005, the Health for All Act. “This research underscores the strides we’ve made in providing Medi-Cal coverage to our young immigrant youth who are vital to the future success of our state and economy. But our work is unfinished until access to care is available for the remaining uninsured, regardless of status.”

The study by the three UC campuses was funded by the Blue Shield of California Foundation and the UCLA Labor Center study was funded by The California Endowment.

Read the reports: Realizing the Dream for Californians Eligible for DACA: Demographics and Health Coverage and Undocumented and UninsuredImmigrant Youth and the Struggle to Access Health Care in California.


  • The UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education was founded in 1964 to conduct research and educate on issues related to labor and employment, such as job quality and workforce development. 
  • The UCLA Center for Health Policy Research is one of the nation’s leading health policy research centers and the premier source of health-related information on Californians.  
  • The UCLA Labor Center is a resource for research, education, and policy development to help create jobs that are good for workers and their communities, to improve the quality of existing jobs in the low-wage economy, and to strengthen the process of immigrant integration, especially among students and youth.
  • The UCSF Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies provides leadership in health policy and health services research, education and training, technical assistance, and public service.