Doctors Prepare for Possible Immigration Enforcement Visits At Hospitals

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Doctors at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in Oakland rally for immigration legislation to protect their undocumented patients. (April Dembosky)

Pediatricians across California are calling on Congress to pass legislation protecting immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, saying their patients are skipping appointments because they’re afraid a visit to the hospital will get them deported.

Doctors and hospital administrators have started formulating protocols so that staff members will know what to do if immigration agents enter hospitals or clinics to search for, or arrest, people who are in the country illegally.

“We want to be prepared if agents do show up and say ‘I need to see the father of the child in Bed Four,’” said Dr. Michael Anderson, president of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals in Oakland and San Francisco. “Legally, we can ask the agents to leave and say ‘This is a place where we care for kids and families. This is not a place for these sorts of interactions.’”

Anderson was one of about 50 doctors, and a handful of students, lawyers and politicians, including the city’s mayor, who rallied outside the Oakland hospital on Tuesday, carrying signs that read: “We Stand With Dreamers” and “You Are Welcome Here.”

Similar rallies were held at hospitals in San Francisco and Los Angeles, with the goal of urging national lawmakers to come up with an immigration fix by the end of the day February 8, when Congress must pass a spending bill to keep the government running. But Democrats agreed that they will not force a shutdown, as they did last month, because of a commitment from Republicans to debate an immigration bill separately from the budget.


Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff criticized the aggressive tactics taken by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under the Trump administration: “We have heard from officials that ICE is going to purposely target communities like Oakland that are standing up for our families, standing up for our valued immigrant communities.  This is vindictive. It is not befitting of a democratic society.”

ICE did not respond to requests for comment, but the agency does have a policy against making arrests at “sensitive locations,” including hospitals, schools, or churches. There are exceptions for "exigent circumstances," or when other law enforcement actions have led agents to the sensitive location.

For example, last October, agents in Texas detained an undocumented 10-year old girl with cerebral palsy at a San Antonio hospital. Border Patrol agents first encountered her when they stopped her hospital-bound ambulance at a security checkpoint. After discovering her immigration status, the agents followed the ambulance to the hospital and waited while the girl had emergency gallbladder surgery. When she was ready for medical discharge, the agents detained her and sent her to a facility for migrant children. The girl was later allowed to return to her parents in Laredo.

Doctors say even isolated stories like this one stoke fear in immigrant communities, making families too scared to seek medical care when they need it.

Children who are sick and don’t get care could become even sicker, said Anderson. They could die from a preventable or curable disease, or not get a vaccine that protects them, and the community at large,  from infection.

California and the rest of the country are right now experiencing the worst flu season of the last decade.

“Our clinics and emergency departments have just been overwhelmed with the number of sick patients,” Anderson said. “If you think a child is ill, the last thing on your mind should be ‘Is it safe for me to go to that hospital?’”

But hospitals only have so much power. Staff can ask immigration agents to leave - unless they have a warrant. That’s why the doctors held signs at the rally that said “You Are Welcome Here," because they cannot completely guarantee, “You Are Safe Here.”