In Chicago, clinics treat with 'respect'
USA Today
May. 1, 2006

Judy Keen

CHICAGO - Carmen Velasquez knows how difficult it is to be an outsider in America.

Her father was a Mexican immigrant who harvested beets in South Dakota. When her mother, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, started school in Iowa, her name was changed to Shirley because her real name, Soledad, was considered too hard to pronounce.

So almost two decades ago, when Velasquez, then a bilingual education specialist, discovered the lack of health services for Chicago's immigrants, she began collecting files about health care access in a Corona beer box in her car trunk. She got angry, then she did something about it. Velasquez applied for a grant and in 1989 opened the first of three branches of the Alivio Medical Center.

The nonprofit clinics now serve about 17,000 patients a year. Most of them, Velasquez says, are newcomers from Mexico who are in the United States illegally, hold several jobs, have little cash, speak no English and wait too long to seek medical care. Most of them are afraid.

When they arrive at the clinics, they are never asked about their legal status. Everyone they deal with directly, including receptionists, nurses and doctors, speaks Spanish. They pay what they can afford based on a sliding scale. They come to the clinics for prenatal care, nutrition counseling, parenting courses and medical attention.

"Patients find respect and a comfort level here," says Velasquez, 66, the clinics' executive director. "The majority of people who come here really struggle with just life. Imagine what it's like to be tense all the time worrying about everything constantly."

Velasquez, who was born in the United States and is a citizen of this country and Mexico, says the marches and protests across the country mark a turning point in the debate over immigration.

'We are God's children'
"We're not here to have an uproar," she says. "We're here with a simple
message: I live and work here. I'm a human being. I take care of your kids, I clean your bedrooms, I work in your restaurants. The food you eat, I make it with my hands. Sometimes we go to the same church. We come from the same source. We are God's children."

Finding a way to grant citizenship to Mexicans already in the United States is the only solution, she says. "It's like they want to get a blackboard and erase us, and we're not going away. This country has to deal with it. The change must come."

Velasquez believes that this is a pivotal moment in American history and compares the resentment toward immigrants to the bias against blacks that led to the civil rights movement. "African-Americans knew that it was unacceptable to sit in the back of the bus, unacceptable for someone to tell them they couldn't come into a restaurant," she says. "It's unacceptable for someone to tell me that I am a criminal because I am supporting services for immigrants."

Velasquez sounds angry, but she's also hopeful: "We are willing to take the risks, whatever they are, to stand up and be counted."