Choosing Between Death and Deportation

The Need for Sanctuary Medical Facilities

For most people, the decision to schedule a doctor’s appointment when ill or injured is fairly easy to make. However, for millions of immigrants living in the United States, the question of whether to seek medical attention can be much more serious.

Every day, immigrants struggle with the crippling fear that seeking medical attention will result in immigration enforcement actions against them. For these people, the prospect of even life-saving treatment is weighed against the risk of being yanked away from their loved ones, stripped of their freedom, and eventually deported to a country where they could face far more perilous dangers. Confronted with this devastating choice, many immigrants decide to take their chances with illness or injury.

Unfortunately, this fear is not completely unfounded. Recently, PHR’s asylum network members have reported incidents where Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – the agencies responsible for immigration enforcement in the United States – have conducted operations at or near hospitals and medical clinics. For example, CBP agents have parked vehicles outside emergency rooms, held up an ambulance in route to the hospital with a patient in critical condition on board, and gone so far as to profile patients in waiting rooms. Once CBP or ICE has custody of a patient, officials refuse to unshackle the patient, deny access to their hospital rooms by family members or attorneys, and remain present at all times. Such acts interfere with the quality of care provided by the doctor and infringe on the patient’s rights to confidentiality and access to counsel. In states near the U.S. border, the threat is even greater, where immigrants often have to travel through checkpoints to reach medical providers. Even when CBP or ICE is unlikely to be present at a medical facility, immigrants remain afraid that hospital staff will alert officers to their presence and status.

The actions by CBP and ICE have severe consequences. Immigrants, especially those who are undocumented or have undocumented family members, are deterred from making regular medical appointments or from seeking emergency treatment when needed. Patients have died because they waited too long to get help. Furthermore, parents have avoided seeking insurance for their children, fearing that the personal information they use to enroll will be misused. Thus, immigrants are left vulnerable to illness, disease, or complications from existing conditions. The terror and stress regarding immigration status further aggravates symptoms of illnesses or disorders, making the need for access to medical care that much more crucial.

The right to health and to have access to health care is codified in Article Seven of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nevertheless, a sizable population is denied that right in the United States. Medical providers should help fill the gap left by current U.S. law and policy, and should take steps to make their workplace a safe space for everyone. Facilities can implement policies that protect patients, such as prohibiting immigration enforcement operations when agents do not have a warrant. Doctors must recognize and adhere to both their ethical duty of non-discrimination and their legal obligation to protect patients’ personal health information. It is vital that all patients are free to pursue medical care without fear of repercussion. Seeking medical treatment should not involve a greater risk to one’s life or health.

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