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DHS Agents Treat Undocumented Immigrants as Criminals in Hospitals, Shackling Them to Beds and Impeding Care, Study Finds

"I couldn't think of the rationale of chaining someone who is so sick he almost died."

U.S. Border Patrol agents wait for paramedics to take an undocumented immigrant to the hospital after he collapsed from heat exhaustion after crossing from Mexico into the United States on August 7, 2015 in McAllen, Texas. A new report by Physicians for Human Rights reveals how undocumented immigrants are frequently treated as criminals in U.S. hospitals. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Doctors at hospitals near the U.S.-Mexico border report that border patrol agents regularly treat undocumented immigrants like convicted criminals when taking them to receive medical care after apprehending them.

Dozens of asylum-seekers and migrants arrive at hospitals near the border every day in the custody of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents, often dehydrated and suffering from other complications from their trek across the desert from their home countries.

"Doctors, who have a moral and ethical obligation and duty to care for patients, are actively being prevented from carrying out the practice of medicine as they've been trained to practice it."
—Kathryn Hampton, Physicians for Human Rights
A new report by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) revealed Monday that although most of these migrants have broken no laws other than the misdemeanor of crossing the border without going through a designated entry point, the agents frequently shackle them to beds, insist on standing guard in their rooms, and interfere with their care in a number of ways.

"Doctors, who have a moral and ethical obligation and duty to care for patients, are actively being prevented from carrying out the practice of medicine as they've been trained to practice it," Kathryn Hampton, a program officer for PHR and a co-author of the report, told the New York Times.

The study details a number of cases of agents intimidating doctors and hospital staff as they refused to leave physicians with patients for private exams and attempting to pressure doctors into discharging immigrants early.

PHR described the case of one critically ill patient who was shackled to a bed by agents who refused to give his doctor a reason for the restraints after repeated questioning.

"I couldn't think of the rationale of chaining someone who is so sick he almost died," the physician told PHR.

In other cases described in the report, agents insisted on standing guard in the room while patients were examined, had private conversations with their doctors, and demanded that the doors to patients' rooms be kept open.

Supervision of a patient "makes sense if you have a prisoner that's convicted of murder, but this is a different population, especially the asylum seekers," Dr. Patricia Lebensohn, a physician in Tucson, Arizona, told the Times. "They're not criminals."

Under federal law, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is prohibited from arresting undocumented immigrants in certain "sensitive locations" including courthouses and hospitals. But as PHR reports, CBP agents frequently flout the law at community hospitals near the southern border:

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has uncovered cases of egregious violations where medical advice was ignored and patients undergoing urgent treatment were arrested and their treatment impeded.


Jose de Jesus Martinez was reportedly visiting his injured son in the intensive care unit of a San Antonio hospital when ICE agents entered and accosted him. Oscar Millan was reportedly arrested while attempting to pick up his newborn son from a hospital in Boston, and Joel Arrona was detained by ICE while driving his pregnant wife to a hospital for a cesarean section, leaving her to drive herself to the hospital alone to deliver her baby.


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According to the Times, such arrests have caused immigrants who are already living in the U.S. to avoid seeking care, including one man in Texas who delayed getting medical attention for a stroke.

"Victims of domestic violence and other crimes avoid reporting their experiences to authorities or seeking medical attention, leaving their injuries untreated and their abusers without consequences," PHR's study reads. "In addition, medical professionals caution that large populations avoiding medical treatment could result in the spread of otherwise preventable disease or infection."

PHR released its findings about three months after DHS pledged to improve healthcare for migrants, following the recent deaths of at least six children who were in U.S. custody after crossing the border.

The report was also released as California legislators approved a budget plan that includes $98 million per year to offer health insurance benefits to some low-income undocumented immigrants living in the state.

Under the plan, Medicaid coverage will be extended to nearly 100,000 people between the ages of 19 and 25.

Immigrant rights advocates applauded the move as California became the first state to extend government-funded health coverage to undocumented immigrants, but some said the state should guarantee healthcare for far more people who are living in the U.S. after crossing borders illegally.

"Expanding access to life-saving Medi-Cal for undocumented young people up to age 25 represents a clear step forward," said Cynthia Buiza, executive director of the California Immigrant Policy Center, in a statement. "The exclusion of undocumented elders from the same healthcare their U.S. citizen neighbors are eligible for means beloved community members will suffer and die from treatable conditions."

"Our leaders must treat all Californians with the same compassion we would hope for when we need it," Buiza added.

Meanwhile, PHR called on healthcare professionals, lawmakers, and DHS to end the abuse of undocumented immigrants by CBP agents in hospitals.

"Patients have the right to be treated by a physician who is free to make decisions about ethical clinical treatment without outside interference," PHR said. "This is consistent with international human rights norms, domestic law, and medical ethical standards."

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