A hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania, is in the process of illegally trying to deport an undocumented woman in a coma to the Dominican Republic, her country of origin, per a report in Prism published Thursday.
Junior Rivas—a pseudonym to protect his identity and immigration status—had his wife admitted into Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest on Dec. 28. What was supposed to be “a simple procedure” to treat her aneurysm instead resulted in complications that led to her being put into a medically induced coma. From there, Rivas told Prism the hospital pressured him to “disconnect her,” and after he refused, he says he was given the following options:
“On February 27: pay for $500 per-day equipment to take care of his wife in their home, find another U.S. hospital that would admit her, or consent to her deportation to the Dominican Republic. They gave him 48 hours to decide before they started her wife’s deportation arrangement. On March 2 [Thursday], Rivas received a letter in English from the hospital saying they would give him seven additional days to pick one of the choices presented to him.”
“If they put her on a plane, my wife is going to die,” Rivas told Prism. “They haven’t even put back the piece of skull they removed from her to relieve the swelling in her brain.”
Despite the fact that hospitals don’t have the legal authority to carry out deportations, one legal expert explained to Prism that instead, they “tend to coerce individuals into agreeing to their own removal or that of their loved ones.” Federal oversight of this practice is severely limited, but the data we do have is alarming: One Phoenix, Arizona-based hospital has reportedly overseen the removal and repatriation of 100 patients per year. There are no known court cases involving hospitals that engage in this practice, nor is there any history of oversight or accountability to prevent them from doing this. Advocates warn that medical deportations are far more common than many realize, as a means for hospitals to cut costs of care for undocumented patients.
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Rivas and his advocates also expressed concern that Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest’s aggressive actions are part of an effort to cover up potential malpractice, as Rivas argues the complications his wife experienced during surgery may have been the result of negligence. Despite his legal right to his wife’s medical records as her guardian, the hospital has yet to provide this paperwork as of Thursday. Deporting Rivas’ wife, one advocate told Prism, might be a means to circumvent accountability for malpractice—even at the cost of Rivas’ wife’s life.
Rivas’ experience reflects the systemic cruelty and inequities that undocumented people face within the health care system. Research has shown that anxiety around immigration status is a significant deterrent in undocumented people or people with undocumented family members seeking sometimes life-saving health care, resulting in worsened health outcomes broadly. Undocumented people seek and access health services at substantially lower rates than citizens. Horrifying stories like Rivas’ can only serve to further discourage undocumented people from getting care.
Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest’s actions are especially jarring, as hospitals have no legal obligation to report undocumented patients’ immigration status to the government. If anything, some experts and legal scholars have argued that doing so violates the federal medical privacy law known as HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act).
Rivas’ story is an indictment of not just dehumanizing immigration policies but the pitfalls of a privatized health system broadly. It’s not just that hospitals exploit vulnerable patients’ immigration statuses to rid of them and cut costs— Adrianna Torres-García, deputy director of the Free Migration Project, told Prism that medical deportations are common because they comprise medical transportation companies’ literal “business model,” as “they rely on these deportations to make revenue.”
As of Thursday, Rivas’ wife remains at Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest. With support from local organizations, he’s continuing to challenge the hospital and keep his comatose wife in the states.