UTSA's Mexico Center

Fellowship recipient uncovers healthcare shortfalls for undocumented immigrants

EXPOSING INEQUALITIES Milena Melo is documenting disparities in healthcare coverage through her doctoral research interviewing borderland immigrants.

Obtaining affordable healthcare can be difficult for even the healthiest of people, but when plagued with a chronic illness, the roadblocks to getting adequate care can seem overwhelming. For undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., even a treatable disease like diabetes can seem like a death sentence.

UTSA anthropology doctoral student Milena Melo, who received an Educational Research Fellowship from the university's Mexico Center in the spring, is taking a closer look at healthcare experiences for undocumented immigrants with diabetes in Texas' Rio Grande Valley. The primary goal of her research and dissertation is to promote healthcare access as a human right for all U.S. residents. Melo hopes to complete her dissertation by 2016.

Milena Melo's faculty advisor, Jill Fleuriet, says the research will have an impact in Mexico and in the U.S.

Melo earned her bachelor's degree in biology and anthropology and her master's in interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in anthropology from The University of Texas-Pan American. While there, she completed her thesis on healthcare access for undocumented immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley. A native of the area, Melo shed light upon the difficulties these people encounter because they do not qualify for healthcare coverage. Through her interviews with emergency room doctors, hospital administrators and the county health department, she found dialysis treatment for diabetics to be a reoccurring topic.

When she began working toward her Ph.D. at UTSA in the fall of 2011, she decided to pursue the topic further through her pilot research. At the center of Melo's research are the personal interviews she is conducting in the Rio Grande Valley with undocumented immigrants seeking treatment for diabetes.

"I am thankful for the funding I received from the Mexico Center through my research fellowship as it has allowed me to conduct these interviews and in turn, I have really gotten a sense of their illness experiences," Melo said

"I had an individual actually cry during the interview saying she cannot afford both treatment for herself and to feed her children."

"A key benefit of Milena's research is her in-depth documentation of what it means to live healthcare disparities, day in and day out," said Jill Fleuriet, UTSA associate professor of anthropology and Melo's faculty advisor who specializes in medical anthropology and health disparities among Hispanics in the U.S.- Mexico borderlands. "The Mexico Center allows the UTSA community to develop and contribute research that has an impact on both Mexico and the U.S."

The UTSA Mexico Center was established in 2005 to connect the existing Mexico-related expertise at UTSA and generate transnational dialogue in the hope that such dialogue will translate into bilateral and cooperative public policy recommendations. Since 2007, the center has awarded 24 Mexico Center Educational Research Fellowships, which support student/faculty research projects on Mexico-related topics that require field work or consultation at a university or research center.