Arrest of Undocumented Latina at Gynecologist’s Office Could Scare Others Away From Healthcare

By Miriam Zoila Pu00e9rez Sep 22, 2015

Blanca Borrego, an undocumented Mexican immigrant and mother of two, was arrested earlier this month while waiting to see her gynecologist in Atascocita, Texas, a town near Houston. The charge? Using a fake ID.

Her arrest at Northeast Women’s Healthcare Clinic sounds like something out of a television show. According to the Houston Press, Borrego was there for a followup with her doctor, David Bonilla. A receptionist asked her for insurance information and identification, and then Borrego waited two hours to see the doctor. The Houston Press continues:

Borrego’s eldest daughter, who asked that her name not be published, says her mother was about to give up and leave when staff finally called her back into an examination room.

Minutes later, Borrego’s daughter saw Harris County Sheriff’s deputies march her mother out of the clinic. She says her 8-year-old sister started to cry when she saw the handcuffs.

“We’re going to take her downtown, she presented a form of false identification,” Borrego’s daughter recalled the deputy saying. He said their mother’s bond would probably be around $20,000, and added, "She’s going to get deported."

Borrego spent two weeks in jail before being released on a $35,000 bond late last Tuesday, according to Ana Rodriguez DeFrates of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH). The family was able to raise the bond money using a GoFundMe page.

Borrego’s arrest at her gyn’s office has provoked outrage among immigration activists and health care advocates alike. People have flooded the FacebookYelp and Google review pages of Memorial Hermann, the medical group that runs the clinic where Borrego was arrested, with negative comments about the arrest. The Texas Organizing Project, in conjunction with the Borrego family, organized a protest outside the clinic last Thursday. NLIRH had another demonstration over the weekend.

"The rally was, in many ways, a joyous occasion. [We hadn’t] forgotten the injustice Blanca had experienced. We were happy to be lifting up our voices with people who looked like us," says DeFrates. "Cars were honking in support and giving us thumbs up. Families walking by commended the fact that we were standing with Blanca. For some it was their first time ever to take part in a rally and it felt really good to be speaking up. [They] felt like poderosas, because they are [powerful]." 

Meanwhile, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a driving force behind the gutting of the Texas Medicaid Women’s Health Program, sent out a victorious tweet after Borrego’s arrest:

Too Scared for Health Care?

Experts argue that in an immigrant-rich state like Texas—where a disproportionate number of Latinas develop and die from preventable cervical cancer—using a doctor’s office for immigration enforcement creates a climate of fear and hostility for women seeking healthcare. 

NLIRH’s DeFrates, who is based in Austin but works closely with women in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley near the Mexico border, says that while she doesn’t know of any other doctor’s-office arrests, the Latinas she works with have been afraid. "Women tell us all the time that they are scared that this will happen," says DeFrates. "One of the many things that is heartbreaking moving forward is that [this incident will] validate those concerns, whether real or perceived, and make it harder for people to get the care they need."

Emma Cermak, an OB-GYN who serves a large number of undocumented people at Marin Community Clinics in California, questions the ethics of the arrest. "As a provider, I am most bothered by the fact that a physician’s office cared more about her ID, and therefore her immigration status, than her medical care," she says.

Cermak’s clinic, a federally qualified health center, does have a policy of asking patients for photo identification. “[But] patients can use IDs from their country of origin or even less official forms, like school IDs,” Cermak says via e-mail. “To my knowledge, our office staff doesn’t have the training or time or mandate to evaluate the authenticity of any given ID."

Cermak says photo identification helps protect a patient’s health information: "If we’ve accidentally opened the wrong chart, we can see that the picture doesn’t match and then we don’t divulge someone’s medical information to the wrong patient."

But asking for a photo ID and calling the police to report a potential fake are very different things, she reiterates. "In our clinic, we want people to know that they will be seen regardless of immigration status, ability to pay [and] language they speak. …No one in [Borrego’s case] had to call the police for a fake ID. They decided to call the police. They decided that the patient’s ID was more important than her health care."

Memorial Hermann, the medical group that runs the clinic where Borrego was arrested, claimed in a statement issued last week that, “this incident has nothing to do with immigration. This unfortunate situation concerns potential fraud and identity theft.”

Anti-Abortion and Anti-Immigration Policies in Lockstep

It’s been a challenging few years for women’s health in Texas. In 2011, the state made severe cuts to family planning funding from which clinics are still rebuilding. Then, on September 1, a new law went into effect that might make situations like Borrego’s much more common. House Bill 3994 requires every patient seeking an abortion to show a government-issued ID. The law is supposed to ensure that patients under 18 have parental consent. DeFrates says it’s not hard to imagine how Borrego’s case and the new ID requirement could make undocumented immigrant women think twice before attempting to obtain an abortion.

Ties Between ICE and Local Police

This Borrego arrest also highlights the way recent programs strengthening the relationship between local law enforcement and ICE may impact how undocumented immigrants are treated.

Northeast Women’s Clinic, part of the Memorial Hermann Medical Group, is located in Atascocita, Texas, an unincorporated area outside of Houston proper. For that reason it was the county sheriff’s deputy who responded to the call from the clinic rather than the Houston Police Department.

Matthew Simpson, policy strategist with the ACLU of Texas, says the location of the clinic may have exacerbated Borrego’s poor treatment. "I do think it is possible that a Houston Police Department officer might have chosen to handle this differently. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office is more closely connected to immigration enforcement." Simpson cites the sheriff’s office’s participation in the 287g program as an example of this connection.

So far no immigration detainer has been issued for Borrego, which DeFrates says often happens when an undocumented immigrant posts bond. ICE, says DeFrates, uses this practice to prevent undocumented people from being released. The lack of a detainer could indicate that ICE is choosing not to get involved in Borrego’s case, despite the threats issued by the sheriff’s deputy during her arrest.

A Patient Relations Nightmare?

Clinic operator Memorial Hermann, for its part, appears to be facing a patient relations problem that could only grow. Last May, the Houston Press reported that the nonprofit medical group has a long history of suing uninsured patients for unpaid medical bills, adding significant legal fees and penalties on top of the medical debt.

And the Northeast Women’s Healthcare Clinic arrest of Borrego appears to conflict with the policy the leading OB-GYN professional association has for treating undocumented immigrants. In March of this year, the mammoth American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a statement in support of health care access for all immigrants, regardless of status. It states, “Providing access to quality health care for unauthorized immigrants and their children, who often were born in the United States and have U.S. citizenship, is essential to improving the nation’s public health.”

As for the Borrego case, NLIRH’s DeFrates says the fight is not over. "Next, we will be sending a formal letter to Memorial Hermann’s leadership asking that they publicly commit to revising their policies to ensure all people who arrive at their clinics with health care needs are properly taken care of, regardless of their immigration status," she says.