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Advocates Call for Regulatory Change After Blocking Deportation of Woman in Coma

Researchers estimate that hundreds — if not thousands — of medical deportations take place a year.

Medical deportations often result in death or the deterioration of the patient’s health.

This story was originally published at Prism.

After community members and nonprofit organizations forced a hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to halt the deportation of an immigrant woman in a coma to the Dominican Republic, advocates are now pushing local and state elected officials to regulate so-called medical deportations: the involuntary removal of undocumented immigrants unable to pay for their long-term care in the U.S. — an illegal practice carried out with very little transparency and accountability.

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

“We are really happy to report that she is safe, and that she will be safe,” said Adrianna Torres-García, deputy director of the Free Migration Project, a nonprofit organization based in Pennsylvania that has denounced medical deportations in the U.S. “We are now waiting for the long-term emergency medical assistance to come through in order to make a decision on where she’s going to be placed next.”

Pennsylvania’s Department of Health Services is considering the expedited request to provide long-term emergency medical assistance to S.C. Torres-García said that the agency should issue its response any day now and that, according to cases similar to S.C.’s, it seems likely that officials will grant the aid. S.C. went into a coma after complications during an aneurysm procedure on Dec. 29.

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

“This practice … referred to here as involuntary patient removal, appears to be far from rare and, in some geographical areas, seems to be almost pro forma,” wrote Sana Loue, a professor from Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine, in a 2020 research paper. In some cases, hospitals obtain court orders that allow them to circumvent U.S. immigration law. The practice, Loue concluded, represents a form of “patient dumping” across international borders and constitutes a violation of both U.S. and international law.

A Shady Practice

Hospitals typically deport individuals under the guise of voluntary repatriations. There is no public data about the prevalence of medical deportations, although researchers estimate that hundreds, if not thousands, of undocumented immigrants are deported every year without informed consent.

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

No hospital or medical transportation company has been held to account for these practices, according to the Free Migration Project. There is not even reliable data about how often medical deportations take place and what the outcomes are.

To regulate the practice, advocates are now proposing an ordinance in the Philadelphia City Council requiring patients’ explicit and informed consent for their deportation or that of a loved one. It would oblige the hospital to provide the patient with all their options before deportation, including the possibility of obtaining medical emergency assistance from the state’s Department of Health Services.

The ordinance would also require hospitals to provide data to state agencies so medical deportations could be understood and more clearly quantified. If approved, the bill’s transparency requirements will be a first step to holding hospitals responsible for their actions.

Advocates are also pressuring the Pennsylvania legislature to regulate medical deportation at the state level. The effort in itself is a way to shed light onto an issue that has gone largely undetected.

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

Apart from PICC and the Free Migration Project, Make the Road Pennsylvania is also urging local and state officials to adopt regulations on medical deportations. If passed, these would be the first guidelines to eradicate involuntary medical deportations in the U.S. and replace them with fully consented repatriations.

“I have not heard of any other piece of legislation regarding medical deportations in the country,” said Torres-García. “And we’ve been working on this for almost three years.”

Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.

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