A 10-year-old undocumented immigrant with cerebral palsy has been held in the custody of US Border Patrol, after agents were alerted to her status while she was enroute to a children’s hospital for emergency surgery.
For more than 24 hours, Border Patrol agents took shifts outside of RosaMaria Hernandez’s hospital room on the seventh floor of the Driscoll Children’s hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas, with her family saying that they are facing demands to sign a voluntary departure form that would send her back to her native Mexico — a country that she has not lived in since she was three months old when her family moved illegally to the United States — with it being the only way to keep her from spending weeks or longer in a detention centre. She was later taken to a children's shelter, where unaccompanied minors are frequently housed while their cases are pending.
“This kind of case puts exactly the reason why we are organizing,” Priscila Martinez, the Texas immigration coalition coordinator with the Worker’s Defense Action Fund, said. Ms Martinez has been working with the family to organize protests, hoping to get relief for RosaMaria and her family. “We think this is completely unacceptable.”
Rosamaria's path into Border Patrol custody began early Tuesday morning at 2am in the Driscoll Children’s hospital in Laredo, Texas, where doctors told her parents that their daughter needed emergency gall bladder surgery at a sister hospital in Corpus Christi — nearly 150 miles to the east.
Knowing that Border Patrol maintains checkpoints in Southern Texas to catch illegal immigrants, and fearing detention themselves, RosaMaria’s parents decided that the best course of action was to stay behind, hoping for the best. So, RosaMaria was placed onboard a hospital van accompanied by an American citizen family member, Aurora Cantu, embarking on her emergency transfer.
That van was stopped as a part of a routine highway checkpoint just east of Laredo on Highway 59, where agents determined that RosaMaria was in the country illegally. Seeing that she was in need of medical care, the van was allowed to proceed, but was followed by Border Patrol agents on the nighttime drive across the southern tip of the Lone Star State.
In the day and a half following RosaMaria's and Ms Cantu's arrival in Corpus Christi, borders agents said they had to keep Rosamaria's within their sight as the gears of the US immigration system turned around their 200 square foot hospital room.
Citing flight-risk concerns for a young girl with a degenerative muscle disease, agents involved themselves in every step of the medical process, according to the family's lawyer. During surgery, agents were nearby. In follow up medical procedures, agents were in the room. They eventually allowed for the hospital room door to be closed only after the lawyer showed up and argued attorney-client confidentiality — a discussion between attorney and Border Patrol agent that took over half an hour to resolve.
"We had direct confrontation for about a 45 minute period... when I learned that the family couldn’t have any privacy, because Border Patrol indicated that their directive form the supervisor was that the child was to remain in their line of sight," Leticia Gonzalez, the lawyer, said. "Border Patrol has been unable to tell me what threat or in what manner this 10-year-old child with cerebral paisley is posing to the US. They haven’t really answered that question. So this is where we use our tax dollars."
RosaMaria was eventually moved to the Baptist Children's Home Ministries shelter in San Antonio — another 150-mile drive. Border Patrol agents accompanied the ambulance that drove the 10-year-old girl there, with one armed agent in the front seat of the ambulance. They were followed by at least two Border Patrol vehicles, as well as at least two trucks with ICE, the acronym for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, marked on the sides.
A fundraising page has been set up to help RosaMaria and her family.
The US Border Patrol confirmed in a statement that the van was stopped at the checkpoint on the way to the hospital on Tuesday, and that agents then escorted RosaMaria and her adult American cousin to the Corpus Christi hospital. The agency also said that the 10-year-old would be processed once she is medically cleared, and that the Mexican consulate had been notified of the situation.
“Due to the juvenile’s medical condition, Border Patrol agents escorted her and her cousin to a Corpus Christi hospital where she could receive appropriate medical care,” a Border Patrol spokesperson said.
The agency did not immediately respond to a request for clarification of Border Patrol policies when an ill minor seeking treatment is involved, or whether criminal history is considered by agents before detention.
Immigrant activists say that policies that allow Border Patrol agents to target individuals seeking medical care could send a devastating message to vulnerable undocumented populations. Faced with the choice between potential deportation or heading to the hospital, some may choose to stay home and risk it, Mohammed Abdollahi, an undocumented immigrant and activist for the group Dream Activist said.
“I’ve heard of a couple cases where people have already made those decisions. In this instance, it was an emergency procedure that needed to happen so the family wasn’t really left with a choice,” Mr Abdollahi said. “That’s the result that immigration wants to get out of this, is for people to know what that they need to be afraid. Practically speaking, on the ground, I think that the message is being heard from the community.”
When RosaMaria woke up from surgery she was in a strange place with just one familiar face nearby. She immediately began asking for her mother.
The hospital gave discharge orders indicating it would be best for her to be released into the custody of a family member as her deportation proceedings proceed. But, attempts so far to have her released into Ms Cantu's custody, or into another family member's custody, have so far proved fruitless. While the family initially thought the girl would be released into her mother's custody, Border Patrol has changed its mind several times, according to Ms Gonzalez.
Whether RosaMaria's mother will be able to see her daughter before the deportation proceedings are finished is still up in the air.
"That was the child's only request," Ms Gonzalez said of RosaMaria's time in recovery. "She wants to see her mom."
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