Q&A: Cynthia Buiza, Executive Director of the California Immigrant Policy Center

Cynthia Buiza is the Executive Director of the California Immigrant Policy Center (CIPC), where she leads the organization in its advocacy for immigrant rights. Buiza has over two decades of experience in human rights advocacy and nonprofit management.

In this Q&A, Buiza discusses her work at CIPC, the Trump Administration’s “public charge” rule, and health challenges facing immigrants in California.

Emily Boerger: Can you tell me about the California Immigrant Policy Center and its overarching goals and mission?

Cynthia Buiza: “We’re a statewide advocacy organization. We mostly focus on immigrant rights and refugee advocacy, but our mission is really to make sure that we craft an inclusive statewide agenda that includes immigrants and refugees. We also have a bunch of different programs that support the mission.

We focus on detention and deportation issues, the safety nets, health and public benefits, immigrant integration, and worker rights. So, we have a full plate in terms of the work we do.

But one of the pillars of CIPC’s work is really in the area of health and public benefits. That’s part of the reason why we are a part of this movement to increase the insured population in California by not only, kind of, redefining what health equity means, but also fighting for coverage for the undocumented population in the state.”

EB: You mentioned the rate of uninsured, but what other specific health challenges do immigrants face in California? 

CB: “Well the lack of access to basic health care is the biggest. For us, the inability to access basic health care actually impacts the economic mobility of many immigrants. Their immigration status impacts their ability to have a healthy and thriving life in the states. So, we’ve been talking about immigration status as a social determinant of health now because of the issues that have been raised around extreme targeting at the moment by the administration against immigrants. 

But when you don’t have access to basic health care, you don’t have access to oral health care, you don’t have access to mental health services, you don’t have access to a lot of what typical Californians have access to… In many ways, for these communities, that inequity is really one of the worst conditions that they could have and experience. And I’ve seen this with my undocumented immigrant friends and their families who have gone bankrupt or have become jobless because they don’t have access to health care. I guess what I’m saying is, this fundamental lack [of access] impacts everything in an immigrant’s life. For that matter, [it impacts] anyone who doesn’t have access to health care.”

EB: Can you talk to me about the Trump Administration’s “public charge” rule and how that’s going to impact access and the number of uninsured? 

CB: “The biggest challenge we have at the moment is the chilling effect of the rule that’s not even in effect. It won’t be in effect until October 15. But, remember that in California many immigrants are in mixed-status families. So, in terms of the chilling effect of the rule, many people have begun to withdraw from programs and services that they are still eligible for. And so we see that this has an immediate effect on how people actually take care of themselves, how people feed themselves because there’s an impact on CalFresh, and how people house themselves because of impacts around housing assistance… That’s just some immediate impacts that we are seeing. 

I think in the long-term, because the projected population that could be affected in California is around 6.8 million, are we going to see more people withholding from certain types of benefits and insurance because of this rule? 

Suffice it to say that if this rule comes through and it’s not stopped, there’s a major setback in terms of the safety nets in California and the populations that actually benefit from them… It’s just a fact that in mixed-status families, people are kind of just overcome by fear. So instead of looking at the complexity of the issue, people just decide that they would rather not have their name in any type of government database.”

EB: What kind of policy is CIPC pushing for? 

CB: “Well, as you know, we have been working on this multi-year campaign to not only allow some type of coverage for undocumented adults and seniors, but also that we’re part of a movement for campaigning for universal health care in California. We see that as the means in which we can fully protect vulnerable and low-income communities from the harmful effects of not having insurance. But also, something that I know many of us in the health advocacy community have been trying to fight for for awhile, is how can we have a more equitable health care system? So, we work very closely with our partners on that.

In terms of the safety nets, of course, because of the issue of public charge, we want to make sure that we restore the integrity to our safety nets by figuring out ways in which programs like CalFresh, Medi-Cal, and some of these other benefits and programs impacted by the rule, are not destroyed.”

EB: Is that work mainly at the state level? Or is there federal work too? 

CB: “It’s both. So, we’re working closely with our state partners and counterparts in Sacramento to figure out how both the legislature and the governor can respond to this. Obviously there’s the lawsuit against public charge at the moment that our state attorney general has joined with other states. So that’s one. 

I think obviously there’s the longer term question what happens in the election, right? And whether there’s some window for us to reverse some of these developments. But yes, the work with the state is ongoing and the work with our statewide partners is ongoing. 

At the national level, we’re working with the national Protecting Immigrant Families campaign which is anchored by the National Immigration Law Center. I sit on the steering committee of the campaign at the national level.

There are also several resolutions and bills moving in Congress right now. One is sponsored by Congresswoman Judy Chu, just trying to fight the public charge rule. So, there’s a lot of effort from the advocacy community to respond to this. Obviously, the challenge is how do you do that in the very fractured political context that we’re living in.”

EB: Are there any big wins in the legislature this year? Any disappointments? 

CB: “We are very happy with the victory around health for young adults. So, starting next year, we will have young adults from 19-26 years old, getting access to Medi-Cal — young undocumented adults. And so that was a major victory. But I’d say that, because we’ve successfully worked with this governor to really send a message that California is going in a different direction when it comes to treating its population, whether you’re an immigrant or not, I think we will continue to move in that direction of creating proactive but inclusive solutions to our social problems.” 

EB: What about legislation for coverage for undocumented individuals 65 and older. 

CB: “Yeah, it’s still moving through the legislature at the moment. We are still working on it, trying to figure out whether we can get it through before the end of the legislative session. But if not, we’re going to pick up the campaign next year. The goal is to really increase the insured population by expanding the framework on health equity that includes this immigrant population, because the biggest number of uninsured in California at the moment is the undocumented immigrant population.” 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.