A Lehigh Valley Hospital Is Trying to Deport An Undocumented Comatose Patient

While medical deportations are illegal, hospitals still deport patients anyway to save money – even if it puts the patient’s life at risk.
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A undocumented woman in Allentown, Pennsylvania is facing medical deportation after being put in a medically induced coma. The 46-year-old patient, who has been identified only as S.C., was being treated for a brain aneurysm at Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest in late December when an otherwise simple procedure took a turn for the worse, prompting doctors to medically induce a coma to protect her brain from further harm. 

After being weaned off the coma-inducing medication three weeks later, however, she did not wake up. As a result, S.C. now requires round-the-clock care in order to live and recover from her injuries. Now, however, hospital administrators at Cedar Crest are threatening to deport her. According S.C.’s husband, Junior Rivas, who is using a pseudonym due to his immigration status, hospital administrators and MedEscort staff have been pressuring him since February to sign a consent form to have his wife transported to the Dominican Republic. When he refused, Rivas was given an ultimatum: find another hospital to transfer her to, pay for home care, or sign the consent form. 

“The reason that the hospital has given me to deport my wife is our immigration status, in fact they have told me that for that reason, they can remove her to the Dominican Republic without my consent,” Rivas said in a statement obtained by the Bucks County Beacon. “My oldest son and I have been taking turns sleeping in the hospital and making sure my wife isn’t taken away.” Because of the severity of her condition, Rivas is highly concerned for his wife’s health and is afraid that she will not survive the flight. 

With the help of local activists and advocacy groups, like the Free Migration Project and Make the Road Pennsylvania, Rivas and his family have been pleading with Cedar Crest to let his wife remain at the hospital until her doctors can further assess her health status and determine next steps or until she can be transferred to another facility. Rivas says that S.C.’s doctors need to wait until March 14 before they can make any determinations about the best course of action for her continued treatment. While hospital administrators initially yielded to public pressure and gave S.C. a 7-day grace period before reconsidering deportation, the deadline for that reprieve was March 8. It is still unclear whether or not the hospital has chosen to deport S.C. 

Not to be confused with medical repatriation, medical deportation is when a non-citizen undergoing medical treatment at a hospital or health care facility is returned to their country of origin without their consent or the consent of their family. According to Medha D. Makhlouf, an assistant professor of law and founding director of the medical-legal partnership clinic at Penn State Dickinson Law, hospitals don’t actually have the authority to deport people. “Deportation is something that only the federal government can do and so it’s not something that a private party like a hospital can officially do,” Makhlouf told the Bucks County Beacon.

But this doesn’t stop them from happening. 

READ: How Immigrant Rights Action Is Serving Bucks County’s Immigrant Community

While medical deportations are technically illegal, they often occur in the shadows, making them largely unregulated and unreported, according to a 2012 study from Seton Hall University’s College of Law and The Health Justice Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. As a result, the number of medical deportations that take place in the U.S. is currently unknown, but companies like MedEscort, which is based in Allentown, claim to have transported thousands of patients to at least 100 different countries.

In addition to being unsanctioned, medical deportations can often be dangerous and worsen health outcomes for undocumented patients, which is Rivas’s chief concern. A 2021 report from the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School found that medical deportations pose a significant risk to the health of undocumented patients and violate their patient rights. When hospitals deport patients without their consent, they are violating their ethical obligations to do no harm by depriving them of care and sending them to a place that might not be safe or conducive to a safe recovery. 

The report also found that medical deportations are usually motivated by financial incentives. Since many undocumented people don’t have access to health insurance or are unable to pay expensive medical bills, some hospitals seek to save money by chartering a plane to deport undocumented patients, and medical transport companies profit off of these deportations. 

“Medical deportation is a shameful practice for any place that is committed to healing. Putting cost-saving measures and profits before a person’s health is abhorrent,” Adrianna Torres-García, the deputy director of the Free Migration Project, said in a statement. “Immigrant members of our community should not have to fear deportation when they’re looking for healthcare, and hospitals should not be in the business of deporting people.”

Although there is generally little recourse undocumented patients and their families can take to stop these medical deportations from occurring, Makhlouf says that it could be possible to file a medical malpractice or negligence suit against a hospital or health care facility for arranging a medical deportation, depending on the circumstances of the case, and public pressure can certainly play an important role in this. 

“Regardless of whether the hospital’s within the law or the law is unsettled as it pertains to medical deportations, there’s an ethical duty of hospitals to provide a certain type of care to patients,” she said. “And if the hospital’s own employees think that this decision as is clinically and ethically invalid, then that certainly presents a problem and can be something that advocacy groups can sort of latch onto and the patient’s family can latch onto in order to persuade the hospital to make a different decision.”

For now, S.C.’s family and the Free Migration Project are currently engaging in “productive conversations” with Cedar Crest Hospital’s administrators and hope this dialogue will end in her being transferred to another health care facility, according to a statement released on Friday. 

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Catherine Caruso

Catherine Caruso is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer with a focus on culture, politics, education, and LGBTQ rights.

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