Fearing Checkpoints, Undocumented Immigrants Cut Off From Medical Care | KERA News

Fearing Checkpoints, Undocumented Immigrants Cut Off From Medical Care

Nov 3, 2017
Originally published on November 4, 2017 12:16 am

The detention of a 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy in South Texas last month for immigration violations spotlights a harsh reality of the borderlands. Undocumented immigrants who live north of the border, but south of a string of Border Patrol checkpoints, say they feel trapped. They fear seeking specialized medical care or visiting family. Some call it la jaula, which is Spanish for "the cage"; others call it la isla, "the island."

The federal government maintains 34 highway checkpoints within 100 miles of the border as a second line of defense against illegal immigration. At the checkpoint on Interstate 35, located 30 miles north of Laredo, a Border Patrol agent questions every driver who stops in his lane, looking for smuggled drugs and people.

"Good afternoon, could you state your citizenship? Anybody else in the vehicle?" he says, over the din and exhaust of idling freight trucks.

Because they fear getting caught at these checkpoints, unauthorized immigrants can live their whole lives in this strip of thornbrush and desert along the U.S.-Mexico border. They miss graduations and funerals; they hunker down instead of evacuating for hurricanes.

The undocumented parents of Rosa Maria Hernandez, the little girl with cerebral palsy, were fearful as well. They didn't accompany her through the checkpoint to a hospital 2 1/2 hours away; instead they sent her with an adult cousin who's a U.S. citizen — but the Border Patrol apprehended her anyway.

"People who live here in Laredo are really living in an island. You can't go anywhere north, south, east, west without passing through some kind of checkpoint that questions your citizenship," says Mike Smith, a Methodist pastor and director of a local community center.

For people trapped in the cage, on the island, the lack of specialized health care is the biggest challenge. Laredo — an isolated city of 235,000 people — has limited medical facilities.

Inocencia Garcia never, ever leaves Laredo — not for vacations, not for medical care. The wizened, soft-spoken woman has lived in Laredo — illegally — for 26 of her 67 years. Her U.S.-born daughter is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient and public school teacher.

Garcia says she has suffered for several years from a chronic bladder infection that resists antibiotics. She's had to stop working as a housekeeper. If she's too active she bleeds.

Smith has tried to help. "I have a doctor that's ready to see her and treat her in San Antonio at no cost, but she can't get there," he says.

The Border Patrol says its policy is that if an undocumented immigrant is in an ambulance at the checkpoint, agents allow him or her to continue on to the hospital and then hand the person a Notice To Appear in immigration court.

That's what happened to Josefina Pena, 60, another undocumented housekeeper and Laredo resident.

"My doctor told me I had blockage in my veins and I was about to have a heart attack. I needed emergency treatment," she says, referring to coronary angioplasty. In April, she left Laredo for University Hospital in San Antonio, but first her ambulance had to pass the checkpoint.

"I was lying in the back of the ambulance," she continues, "when an agent opened the door and asked me for my documents. I told him I didn't have any. He closed the door and he let us go through. Then when we got to San Antonio, the Border Patrol was there waiting for me."

In her hospital bed, Pena was put under arrest. Agents waited until after the procedure, then transported her to a federal detention facility in Laredo where she spent the night. She was released the next day.

"It used to never be a problem," says her attorney, Ricardo DeAnda, who has practiced law in Laredo for 30 years. "Doctors could safely say [to immigration officials], 'This is an emergency. This patient needs to go to San Antonio' and the Border Patrol would not intervene."

He adds, "What's happening now is they're following the ambulance to put people in detention."

Since the highly publicized story of Rosa Maria, it's not hard to find similar checkpoint cases.

Nelly Vielma, an immigration lawyer and City Council member in Laredo, has an undocumented client who had to go to San Antonio in February to have a brain tumor removed. Same deal: Agents stopped the ambulance at the checkpoint, followed the 55-year-old woman to the hospital, and served her deportation orders before letting the operation proceed.

"We've noticed more detentions. We've noticed less discretion, cases where we thought, OK, this was a sure thing, they will exercise prosecutorial discretion. They don't," says Vielma.

Vielma says she thinks Rosa Maria's case had to make news "so people can pay attention to the immigration laws that are becoming so extreme."

The Border Patrol disputes that it handles medical emergencies at checkpoints any differently these days.

"It's 100 percent inspection," says Gabriel Acosta, assistant chief patrol agent in the Laredo Sector. "Nothing has changed. In the 20 years I've been in the Border Patrol we're doing exactly the same thing."

Some border residents wonder why immigration authorities are following ambulances carrying sick women and children who pose no public threat. Acosta responds: "We're just enforcing the law."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A disabled 10-year-old girl was recently apprehended in South Texas for immigration violations. Her case spotlights a harsh reality of the borderlands. Undocumented immigrants who live north of the border but south of a string of Border Patrol checkpoints say they feel trapped. Some call it la jaula, Spanish for the cage. NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The federal government maintains 34 highway checkpoints within a hundred miles of the southwest border as a second line of defense against illegal immigration. At the checkpoint on the interstate north of Laredo, Texas, Border Patrol agents question every driver.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Good afternoon. Could you state your citizenship?

BURNETT: They're looking for smuggled drugs and people.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Resident? Anybody else in the vehicle?

BURNETT: Because they fear getting caught at these checkpoints, unauthorized immigrants can live their whole lives in this strip of thorn brush and desert along the U.S.-Mexico border. They miss graduations and funerals. They hunker down instead of evacuating for hurricanes. The undocumented parents of Rosa Maria Hernandez, the little girl with cerebral palsy, were fearful as well. They didn't accompany her through the checkpoint to a hospital two and a half hours away. Instead, they sent her with an adult cousin, who's a U.S. citizen. But the Border Patrol apprehended her anyway. Mike Smith is a Methodist pastor and director of a local community center.

MIKE SMITH: So people who live here in Laredo are really living in an island. You can't go anywhere north, south, east, west without passing through some kind of checkpoint that questions your nationality, citizenship.

BURNETT: For people trapped in the cage, on this island, the lack of specialized health care is the biggest challenge. Laredo, an isolated city of 235,000 people, has limited medical facilities. Inocencia Garcia never, ever leaves Laredo - not for vacations, not for medical care. The wizened, soft-spoken woman has lived in Laredo illegally for 26 of her 67 years.

INOCENCIA GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Garcia says for several years she's suffered from a chronic bladder infection that resists antibiotics. She's had to stop working as a housekeeper. If she's too active, she bleeds. Pastor Mike Smith has tried to help.

SMITH: I have a doctor that's ready to see her and to treat her in San Antonio at no cost, but she can't get there.

BURNETT: The Border Patrol says it's their policy that if an undocumented immigrant is in an ambulance at the checkpoint agents allow them to continue on to the hospital, then hand them a Notice to Appear in immigration court. That's what happened to Josefina Pena, another undocumented housekeeper and Laredo resident.

JOSEFINA PENA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Pena, who is 60, says a doctor told her she had partial blockage in her veins and was at risk for a heart attack. She needed an emergency coronary angioplasty, so in April she left Laredo for University Hospital in San Antonio. But first, her ambulance had to pass the checkpoint.

PENA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "I was lying in the back of the ambulance," she says, "when an agent opened the door and asked me for my documents. I told him I didn't have any. He closed the door and let us go through. Then when we got to San Antonio, the Border Patrol was there waiting for me."

In her hospital bed, Josefina Pena was put under arrest. After the procedure, agents transported her to a federal detention facility in Laredo. She was released the next day. Josefina's attorney and other longtime Laredoans say agents didn't always bother with undocumented immigrants at the checkpoint on their way to the hospital. Sometimes they just let them go. But under the Trump administration, they say, enforcement has gotten much stricter. Nelly Vielma is an immigration lawyer and City Council member in Laredo. She represented a woman whose ambulance was followed from Laredo to a San Antonio hospital, where immigration agents served her with deportation orders before she had a brain tumor removed.

NELLY VIELMA: We've noticed more detentions. We've noticed less discretion, cases where we thought, OK, this was, you know, a sure thing. You know, they will exercise their prosecutorial discretion. They don't.

BURNETT: The Border Patrol disputes they handle medical emergencies at the checkpoints any differently these days. Gabriel Acosta is assistant chief patrol agent in the Laredo sector.

GABRIEL ACOSTA: It's 100 percent inspection. Nothing has changed. In the 20 years I've been in the Border Patrol, we're doing exactly the same thing.

BURNETT: Some border residents wonder why immigration authorities are following ambulances carrying sick women and children who pose no threat. The Border Patrol responds, we're just enforcing the law. John Burnett, NPR News, Laredo.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And this update - the ACLU, which is representing 10-year-old Rosa Maria Hernandez, said late-Friday that the girl has been released from a government-contracted shelter to the custody of her parents. She still faces a deportation order in court.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUT OUT LOUDS SONG, "JUMBO JET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.