Posted on February 24, 2023

California Says It Can No Longer Afford Aid for Covid Testing, Vaccinations for Migrants

Don Thompson, KHN, February 22, 2023

All day and sometimes into the night, buses and vans pull up to three state-funded medical screening centers near California’s southern border with Mexico. Federal immigration officers unload migrants predominantly from Brazil, Cuba, Colombia, and Peru, most of whom await asylum hearings in the United States.

Once inside, coordinators say, migrants are given face masks to guard against the spread of infectious diseases, along with water and food. Medical providers test them for the coronavirus, offer them vaccines, and isolate those who test positive for the virus. Asylum-seekers are treated for injuries they may have suffered during their journey and checked for chronic health issues, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

But now, as the liberal-leaning state confronts a projected $22.5 billion deficit, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state can no longer afford to contribute to the centers, which also receive federal and local grants. The Democratic governor in January proposed phasing out state aid for some medical services in the next few months, and eventually scaling back the migrant assistance program unless President Joe Biden and Congress step in with help.

California began contributing money for medical services through its migrant assistance program during the deadliest phase of the coronavirus pandemic two years ago. The state helps support three health resource centers — two in San Diego County and one in Imperial County — that conduct covid testing and vaccinations and other health screenings, serving more than 300,000 migrants since April 2021. The migrant assistance program also provides food, lodging, and travel to unite migrants with sponsors, family, or friends in the U.S. while awaiting their immigration hearings, and the state has been covering the humanitarian effort with an appropriation of more than $1 billion since 2019.


While health workers and immigration advocates want the state to continue funding, Newsom appears to have bipartisan support within the state for scaling it back. {snip}


California began its migrant assistance support soon after Newsom took office in 2019 and after the Trump administration ended the “safe release” program that helped transport immigrants seeking asylum to be with their family members in the United States. It was part of California’s broad pushback against Trump’s immigration policies; state lawmakers also made it a so-called sanctuary state, an attempt to make it safe from immigration crackdowns.

California, along with local governments and nonprofit organizations, stepped in to fill the void and take pressure off border areas by quickly moving migrants elsewhere in the United States. {snip}

In a coordinated effort, migrants are dropped off at the centers by federal immigration officers, then are screened and cared for by state-contracted organizations that provide medical aid, travel assistance, food, and temporary housing while they await their immigration hearings.


Officials said about 46,000 people have been vaccinated against the coronavirus through the program. They said the figure is significantly lower than the number of migrants who have come through the centers because some were vaccinated before reaching the U.S. and younger migrants were initially ineligible, while others refused the shots.

According to the California Health and Human Services Agency, the state plans to phase out some medical support, but the sheltering operations are expected to continue “for the near term” with their future determined by the availability of federal funding. Of the more than $1 billion spent by the state, $828 million has been allocated through the Department of Public Health, according to the governor’s office.