Many immigrant women already forgo needed healthcare, living with lumps in their breasts or daily pain because they’re afraid to seek help — ultimately costing taxpayers money when they become sick. (Photo: Getty Images)
On September 3, Blanca Borrego of Houston went for a scheduled appointment to see her gynecologist at the Memorial Hermann Northeast Women’s Healthcare clinic. She had two of her children with her.
Borrego has visited the same gynecologist a year ago with abdominal pain, where the doctor determined it was caused by a cyst. She was now going back to visit her gynecologist for her routine exam.
After a three-hour wait, she was finally taken back to an exam room, where she was met by deputies from the Harris County Sheriff’s office, who arrested Borrego, an undocumented immigrant who overstayed her visa 12 years ago.
A search of Borrego’s possessions turned up a fake Social Security card, resulting in a felony charge for tampering with government documents. Borrego’s bond has been set at $35,000, which her family is unable to afford, and she now faces potential deportation.
The Texas Observer reports that while the driver’s license Borrego had given the clinic at check in was a fake, it is unclear how the staff ascertained this fact and why they decided to then alert law enforcement.
Memorial Hermann clarified the events for Yahoo Health, providing the following statement:
Ms. Borrego arrived at our clinic for routine care where she presented potentially false identification. For quality and safety reasons, our staff requests and verifies proper identification to ensure appropriate treatment. The patient was unable to provide another valid form of identification and in an effort to verify the authenticity of the suspicious driver’s license, the office then called the licensing bureau of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS).
DPS instructed our staff to contact local law enforcement to validate the driver’s license number. This inquiry confirmed a false identification. Local law enforcement took this information and made the decision to arrest the patient.
To our knowledge, this is a unique event in Memorial Hermann’s history. We did not ask for this individual to be arrested. This is a decision that was made by law enforcement, including the District Attorney’s office.
We did not press charges. We simply called DPS to question a potentially false identification.
What happened to the patient is unfortunate. We also appreciate the sensitivity of this matter. As such, we consider this an opportunity to evaluate our processes.
The hospital —which, annually, treats approximately 2 million patients, many of who are uninsured and/or potentially undocumented — stresses that “our responsibility and commitment is to care for all patients – regardless of their race, ethnicity, color, religion, immigration or residency status. We do not ask patients about residency or immigration status nor do we report an undocumented patient to law enforcement. To be clear, this incident has nothing to do with immigration or residency status.”
But it became an issue of residency status when the police came in.
“We’re going to take her downtown, she presented a form of false identification,” the police said to Borrego’s older daughter as they led Borrego from the clinic in handcuffs. He added, “She’s going to get deported.” Borrego’s younger daughter, only eight years old, started to cry, the Houston Press reported.
In a statement regarding healthcare for unauthorized immigrants issued by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) in March of this year, the organization made explicit their support for a “basic health care package for all women living within the United States without regard to their country of origin or documentation.”
An estimated 11.3 million individuals living in the United States are undocumented, with women comprising 47 percent of this population.
“They took her into that examination room solely for the purpose of being arrested,” Clarissa Guajardo, Borrego’s lawyer, told the Houston Press. “I just have a very hard time with that. I think it’s a violation of HIPAA laws.”
Because unauthorized immigrants are less likely than other U.S. residents to have health insurance and are excluded from coverage under the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid, this population — and unauthorized Latino immigrants in particular — are disproportionately less likely to visit a healthcare provider than the general population. This yields greater instances of childbirth-related hospitalization, the costs of which are ultimately absorbed by the taxpayer, and part of a cycle that leads many to believe that it would be economically more efficient to ensure that all citizens have access to healthcare regardless of immigration status.
Ana Rodriguez DeFrates of the Texas Latina Advocacy Network said in a statement that the arrest “raises serious questions about patient privacy and human rights of immigrant women in Texas.”
“The sad fact is that many immigrant women in Texas, and across the country, already forgo needed healthcare, live with lumps in their breasts and daily pain, because clinics are inaccessible or put them at risk for deportation,” she said.
“This is an ongoing human rights crisis, and Blanca Borrego’s arrest shines a light on the struggles of immigrant women, who are routinely denied driver’s licenses, affordable healthcare, and other basic human and civil rights.”
In ACOG’s committee opinion issued on the topic, they make clear their belief that healthcare professionals can and should play an important role in helping society understand the importance and widespread benefit of universal health care access for all U.S. residents, regardless of immigration status.
This story was updated on Thursday, September 17th with a statement from Memorial Hermann Northeast Women’s Healthcare clinic.