Advocates call for change in regulations after blocking deportation of woman in coma

This story originally appeared on Prism.

After community members and nonprofits forced an Allentown, Pennsylvania hospital to halt the deportation of a comatose immigrant woman to the Dominican Republic, activists are now pushing local and state officials to regulate so-called medical deportations: the involuntary deportation of undocumented immigrants unable to pay for their long-term care in the United States – an illegal practice carried out with very little transparency and accountability.

On March 10, attorneys announced that Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest was suspending the discharge of the 46-year-old mother of two teenagers, identified only as SC, to protect her privacy. After hospital administrators gave SC’s husband, Junior Rivas, who requested to use a pseudonym to protect his U.S. immigration status, 48 ​​hours to find another care facility for his wife or consent to her deportation, administrators agreed under public pressure to wait until she could be safely transferred to a long-term care facility in the United States

“We are really happy to report that she is safe and will be,” said Adrianna Torres-García, deputy director of the Free Migration Project, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that has spoken out against the deportations. medical in the United States. are now waiting for long-term emergency medical help to make a decision on where she is going to be placed next.

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Although the practice is illegal, medical deportations have become a profitable industry in the United States

The Pennsylvania Department of Health Services is considering the expedited request to provide long-term emergency medical assistance to SC Torres-García said the agency should release its response any day and that, according to cases similar to those of SC, it seems likely that the authorities will grant the aid. SC fell into a coma after complications during an aneurysm procedure on December 29.

Although the federal government is solely responsible for deporting people from the country, hospitals routinely deported undocumented immigrants. Often, hospital administrators coerce the patient’s family into consenting to deportation, sometimes even threatening to call immigration authorities about them, researchers have found.

“This practice…referred to here as involuntary patient withdrawal, appears to be far from uncommon and, in some geographies, appears to be almost pro forma,” wrote Sana Loue, a professor at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine, in a 2020 Research Dissertation. In some cases, hospitals obtain court orders that allow them to circumvent US immigration law. The practice, Loue concluded, represents a form of “patient dumping” across international borders and is a violation of U.S. and international law.

A shady practice

Hospitals generally deport individuals under the guise of voluntary repatriation. There are no public data on the prevalence of medical deportations, although researchers estimate that hundreds, if not thousands, of undocumented immigrants are deported each year without informed consent.

Hospitals charter private flights from medical transport companies to deport undocumented patients, even when they cannot travel safely or receive adequate care in their home country. Medical expulsions often result in the death or deterioration of the patient’s health. They also separate people in critical condition from support from family and community networks when they need it most.

No hospital or medical transport company has been held responsible for these practices, according to the Free Migration Project. There are not even reliable data on the frequency of medical evictions and the results.

To regulate the practice, attorneys are now proposing an ordinance to the Philadelphia City Council requiring patients’ explicit and informed consent for their eviction or that of a loved one. This would require the hospital to provide the patient with all of their options before deportation, including the ability to obtain emergency medical assistance from the state Department of Health Services.

The order would also require hospitals to provide data to state agencies so that medical evictions can be understood and more clearly quantified. If approved, the bill’s transparency requirements will be a first step in holding hospitals accountable for their actions.

Lawyers are also lobbying the Pennsylvania legislature to regulate medical eviction at the state level. The effort itself is a way to shed light on a problem that has gone largely unnoticed.

“I had no idea about medical deportations and that there are no state laws against this practice,” said Julio Rodríguez, longtime organizer and current political director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition ( PICC), which represents more than 60 immigrants. advocacy organizations across the state. “We will work with representatives to introduce legislation so this doesn’t happen again.”

In addition to the PICC and the Free Migration Project, Make the Road Pennsylvania is also urging local and state officials to enact medical deportation regulations. If passed, these guidelines would be the first to eradicate involuntary medical deportations in the United States and replace them with fully consented repatriations.

“I haven’t heard of any other medical deportation legislation in the country,” Torres-García said. “And we’ve been working on it for almost three years.”

Prism is an independent, nonprofit newsroom run by journalists of color. We report from the grassroots and at the intersections of injustice.

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