Spearheading the Immigrant Health Academy is only Quiñones' latest chapter in a career committed to health care and immigration.
Luvia Quiñones, MPP'11

When her mother was diagnosed with brain cancer four years ago, Luvia Quiñones, MPP’11, and her two sisters found the health care system nearly impossible to navigate.

That was despite Quiñones’ work in and around the system. She is Senior Director of Health Policy for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), and remains actively engaged with her alma mater and the issues that matter to her as a member of the Harris School of Public Policy’s Alumni Council.

“After my mom’s passing, all I could think about was, ‘What about all of the people who don’t know who to call, who don’t speak the language, who don’t even know they have a right to ask questions?’’’ said Quiñones.

The experience led to the idea of the Immigrant Health Academy, a program to train and empower immigrants with health “know your rights” education and other information so that they know their health care rights, exercise them, and empower others to do the same.

Hailed as the first of its kind, Quiñones’ initiative was launched in October along with a report detailing the Illinois immigration landscape, entitled “Overcoming Barriers and Empowering Communities: The Immigrant Health Academy.”

“People may be aware of services, but they’re afraid of accessing them because they think that their information is going to be shared with immigration or they think they don’t have a right to access healthcare,’’ said Quiñones.

Quiñones hears this repeatedly from ICIRR partner organizations and from immigrants who sometimes contact ICIRR directly. And she knows from personal experience.

Quiñones grew up without health insurance because her mother, despite being a legal immigrant, was afraid to access government benefits.

Her parents were from Durango, Mexico, and her father died when she was young. Like many children of immigrants, it fell to her to read the mail, figure out government institutions, and speak for the family.

“I was raised very much aware of my privilege and my responsibilities when it came to language,’’ said Quiñones, who was six when her family moved from California to Chicago.

She attended Lane Tech High School and DePaul University, planning to become a teacher until courses in international studies opened her eyes to a troubled world. Studying revolutions and protests in Latin America and Eastern Europe, for example, prompted an exploration of her own family’s history.

“Those classes led me to start asking my mom questions about her background. Until then, I didn’t know her reason or my dad’s reason to come to the U.S. at a young age,’’ Quiñones said.

She learned about her mother’s traumatic border crossings, once assaulted by an immigration officer and another time jailed on suspicion of human smuggling because of her fair skin.

Quiñones with her mother.

Moved by her mother’s experiences and intent on making a difference, Quiñones joined ICIRR to oversee the New Americans Initiative, helping immigrants become citizens through services such as citizenship test preparation.

“I was very young and didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, to be honest. I didn’t know what advocacy was and I didn’t know what community organizing was,’’ she recalls.

Over five years she learned plenty about both, and also realized she wanted to have an even greater impact.

“I really felt the need to try to make changes. For me it was more about how you influence and how you make things better,’’ Quiñones said.

Weighing whether to study law or public policy, she chose Harris Public Policy, where she focused on poverty and inequality and completed three internships that gave her experience, relationships, and exposure to new fields.

With a master’s degree in hand, Quiñones joined City Colleges of Chicago in the community relations department. She’d been there just five months when she ran into her former ICIRR boss at a Starbucks. That very day he called and persuaded her to return to ICIRR to administer a state-funded health and human services program.

Soon after, as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA, also known as Obamacare) was about to be implemented, Quiñones was offered the newly created role of Director of Health Policy.

She recalls thinking, “Wait, I know nothing about health policy,’’ as she embarked on a crash course of sorts, including auditing a health policy law class at UChicago. That seems like ancient history.

“Now I’ve been working in health policy for seven years and have become an expert at immigrant health, ironically, through just doing the work and learning from others,’’ she said.

ICIRR is a statewide advocacy coalition whose member organizations include health care providers, faith institutions, and labor unions. Issues arising in their communities help ICIRR determine its legislative and programmatic priorities.

“They’re the ones who hear about a lot of the issues – such as a person being denied healthcare because of their status, someone not knowing where to go when they’re sick, or ending up with high hospital bills.’’

Quiñones works on policy solutions for the remaining uninsured with a specific focus on undocumented immigrants, people ineligible for the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid. On any given day, she may be working with the Office of the Illinois Attorney General, a hospital association, or a member of Congress.

Her team also provides technical assistance to member organizations, helping them build capacity for training around health care access and to advocate in specific cases.

Quiñones finds that lessons from Harris, such as political and power analysis, apply often.

Luz Victoria

“Harris taught me to think through the scenarios when you have a policy solution that you want to advocate for. What could be the reaction from the target audience and what are the potential answers?’’ Quiñones said. “I think I also learned the importance of always having a Plan B or Plan C to be able to negotiate.’’

Quiñones is as passionate about family as she is her work. She recalls her mother’s love and often-expressed pride in her and her sisters, Leslie Regalado and Yessenia Medina.

On November 2, Quiñones became a mother herself. She knows that Luz Victoria will change the world for her and her husband, Bobby Ioanes.

Among her many dreams: “I hope that our child grows up to know that she has rights, and that she is able to use her voice in whatever she wants to do.’’