The arrest of a Mexican woman who was detained after staff at a Texas clinic called the police may deter other undocumented migrants from seeking healthcare, the woman’s lawyer has warned.
Blanca Borrego was detained after she went to a Houston-area clinic on 27 August to see her gynecologist. After filling out paperwork and presenting an apparently fake social security card, she was told to wait, according to her attorney, Clarissa Guajardo.
Two hours later, Borrego was finally shown into an examination room but instead of receiving her annual examination, she was arrested and taken into custody.
Borrego, 44, was charged with a felony for presenting false identification and has been held in the Harris County jail on a $35,000 bond.
Guajardo said on Monday said the case could have “a chilling effect” on women seeking medical care, and expressed concern that Borrego has still not received the examination for which she went to the clinic.
The attorney said that the family is trying to put together the money to bail Borrego out, after weighing up the risk that federal immigration authorities may take her into custody immediately after she leaves jail and begin deportation proceedings.
Ana Rodriguez DeFrates of the Texas Latina Advocacy Network said 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 in a statement.
“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.”
Rodriguez DeFrates said that activists are planning a rally in support of Borrego in Houston this weekend.
Borrego and her family moved from Mexico to Houston in 2003 but overstayed their visas. Borrego and her husband have two daughters, one of whom was born in the US.
Both accompanied their mother to the Northeast Women’s Healthcare clinic on 27 August, Guajardo said.
Guajardo said she believed the clinic’s actions are a potential violation of federal healthcare privacy laws. Under the HIPAA Act, not only treatment details but also demographic information that can link an individual with his or her health record, such as social security numbers and driving license details, is protected.
Healthcare providers may only disclose private information to law enforcement in limited circumstances, such as in violent crimes or if workers suspect a crime is being committed on the premises.
Gabrielle Lessard, health policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, an immigrant rights organisation, said the clinic’s behaviour was “really shocking” and “inappropriate” given the ethical duty of healthcare providers to put their patients’ needs first. She said she had never come across a similar case before.
Alex Loessin, a spokeswoman for Memorial Hermann, the not-for-profit medical group that runs the clinic, did not respond to a request for comment. Last week she told the Houston Press, which first reported the arrest, that she was “unable to provide comment” because of patient privacy.
Contrary to perceptions that undocumented immigrants are a drain on the US healthcare system, a recent study found that they contributed $2.2bn to $3.8bn more than they withdrew annually from 2000 to 2011, creating a surplus that is prolonging the financial viability of Medicare, the federal health insurance programme that covers elderly and disabled people.
California lawmakers agreed in June to allow undocumented children to receive public healthcare coverage. A proposal that would see California become the first state in the country to allow undocumented immigrants to buy Obamacare coverage is currently before the state legislature and was passed by the senate in June.
Its proponents argue that expanding healthcare access is both humane and financially prudent because people without adequate insurance are more likely to delay treatment until they are seriously ill and need expensive emergency care.
Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, an advocacy group, said that the consensus in the state is that “healthcare is no place to do immigration enforcement. You don’t want to have a chilling effect of people not getting emergency, or just needed, care.”
Wright said that migrants often express concern about the possible consequences of seeking healthcare and appearing on the radar of government authorities – including some who are in the country legally but have undocumented relatives. “No one wants to be the family member that because they signed up for coverage got grandma deported,” he said.
DeFrates, the Texas Latina advocate, said that her group hears every day from women who worry about seeking medical care, which she attributes “to a pervasive fear of deportation that exists when undocumented families are interacting with anyone in a position of authority”.