“We Cannot Let Them Die”: Undocumented Immigrants and Media Framing of Health Deservingness in the United States

From Qualitative Health Research

The extent to which the U.S. government should provide health services to undocumented immigrants has been a topic of heated debate in recent years. While human rights frameworks support the notion of universal access to health care, neoliberal positions argue for individual responsibility and self-sustainability as the basis of deservingness. Although the latter stance has traditionally been mainstream in the United States, the increasingly large presence of undocumented immigrants has made public policy more contentious in recent years. Through the creation of state-based health exchanges, the ACA promised to help individuals and small businesses purchase coverage, with or without subsidies, and states had the option of expanding Medicaid to a larger pool of individuals. Despite its claims of universality, the ACA ended up barring all  undocumented immigrants from any type of government-based medical care, including the federally subsidized health exchanges and Medicaid

Based on a systematic qualitative analysis of articles published by The New York Times (2009–2017), this article presents the main media frames that support the access to government-sponsored health care by undocumented immigrants, just before and after passage of the U.S. Affordable Care Act in 2010. This study aligns with a turn in media analysis that acknowledges a paradigm shift from quantitative to qualitative studies in the study of news frames. Frames about immigration policy—as well as their frequency—vary across mainstream, liberal, and conservative news sources. Consequently, the NYT was chosen as it is considered the premier national source of news coverage in the United States, and largely progressive on matters of public policy.  

The findings drawn from this study call attention to a recent paradigm shift in the U.S. progressive media—from the notion of the undocumented as a criminal and deviant to humanizing perspectives that spotlight their contributions and struggles, as well as the economic benefits of providing them with health insurance. This study coined the term “The New York Times effect” to describe reporters’ compassionate approach to vulnerable immigrants’ health needs, as well as the moral obligation of the United States to provide timely and efficient medical assistance. In line with the human interest frame (also called the episodic frame), the compassionate frame calls attention to individual cases that highlight the emotional aspects of a topic, while avoiding nonpersonalized and broader issues related to immigration. This study has intended to provide a timely contribution to the growing field of media framing on immigration, particularly regarding the inclusion of undocumented immigrants into the U.S. government’s health safety net on the basis of deservingnes. By relying on two main frames, compassionate and cost control, the NYT articles examined here deploy convincing arguments toward shaping their readership’s attitudes and beliefs concerning the undocumented population in the United States.  

Article details

“We Cannot Let Them Die”: Undocumented Immigrants and Media Framing of Health Deservingness in the United States

Anahí Viladrich

DOI: 10.1177/1049732319830426

Qualitative Health Research