Hundreds of immigration activists, clergy members, and others participate in a protest against President Donald Trump’s immigration policies in front of the Federal Building in New York City on January 11th, 2018.
(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Last week, United States Immigrations and Customs Enforcement announced it would deport Yancarlos Mendez. Mendez is an auto mechanic with no criminal record other than driving without a license. He overstayed permission to be in the country under the Visa Waiver Program, and after his arrest (for lacking a license), ICE decided to deport him. So far, this is a pretty typical story of ICE deporting good people who were otherwise full contributors to American society.
Mendez is also the sole financial provider and caregiver to a six-year-old boy with paraplegia. The child, Ricky Solis, was paralyzed in February of 2017 when a driver crossed lanes and struck the car in which he was riding with his mother, Sandra Mendoza. As he recovered, Mendoza and Mendez were both trained in how to care for him, a key step in Ricky’s being released from the hospital. Now Mendez is in custody, ICE has denied an appeal, Mendoza had to quit her job to care for her son around the clock, and Ricky is experiencing internal bleeding. Amid tears and new surgeries, ICE is preparing to “repatriate” Mendez to the Dominican Republic.
If you are concerned about disability rights in 2018, you also need to be concerned about immigration rights. This has, of course, always been true. It’s axiomatic that campaigns for justice overlap. Cases like the deportation of Yancarlos Mendez, however, make it impossible to deny the necessity of working across categories in order to build a better world.
As ICE has intensified operations under the regime of President Donald Trump, disability-related cases and causes have routinely gotten public attention. In part, this has to do with the way that disability commands sympathy and can sometimes generate generous media coverage. It’s easier for immigrant rights groups to command national attention when there’s a disabled six-year-old at risk. But it’s also because ICE has turned rapacious, sweeping aside long traditions protecting medical facilities such as hospitals from enforcement actions.
We saw this pattern last fall, when the American Civil Liberties Union took on the case of Rosa Maria Hernandez. Hernandez is a 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy whose ambulance was stopped at a checkpoint while she was being taken to a hospital for gallbladder surgery. Immigration authorities kept her under surveillance throughout the procedure, then took her to a detention center. Only widespread national outrage prompted her eventual release. The Department of Homeland Security told NPR at the time that they had no choice but to the detain the child. “By law we have to do exactly what we did,” said Gabriel Acosta, assistant chief patrol agent in Laredo.
Earlier in 2017, an Iraqi Christian in Michigan was threatened with deportation, even though he was serving as the bone marrow donor for his niece, a U.S. citizen. ICE has arrested at least three immigrants visiting Oregon hospitals for medical care. A Salvadoran immigrant, Sara Beltrán Hernández, was removed from a hospital where she was undergoing treatment for a brain tumor. Two undocumented Texas parents of an infant with acute pyloric stenosis, a dangerous gastrointestinal condition, had to agree to turn themselves over to the authorities in order to take their son to a hospital that could treat him. Brandon Martinez, 16, barely survived being locked inside a truck’s trailer in extreme heat while crossing the border into the U.S. As his father Jose de Jesus Martinez, who is also undocumented, wept beside Brandon in the hospital, ICE agents entered the hospital room and began to question the elder Martinez aggressively.
In response to these types of stories, Democrats in the House of Representatives introduced the Protecting Sensitive Locations Act, which would force ICE to exclude hospitals from enforcement operations. The lawmakers’ efforts are supported by at least some medical professionals who are concerned about access to health care for undocumented people, as both good ethics and good epidemiology. In a number of different essays in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network throughout 2017, doctors argued that it was better for public health overall when everyone has access to care. In a December essay, Dr. Altaf Saadi made a case for sanctuary hospitals, writing: “If ICE agents come to the hospital, for example, their identification should be verified, and absent an emergency such as to avoid immediate harm or criminal activity, no hospital employee should provide information about any patient to the agents or provide them access to any patient’s room without a court-ordered warrant or subpoena. Hospitals can conduct patient awareness campaigns to inform patients that their personal information will not be shared with ICE.”
The Trump administration has not protected the DREAMers (immigrants who came here without documents but as children), has moved to expel Haitians who came to this country after the earthquake, and is now mandating the expulsion of up to 200,000 Salvadorans who have been in the U.S. since 2001. I argue that these are disability rights stories too, even if we’re unlikely to recognize it until ICE raids another hospital.
This is a fraught moment for our country. Uniformed men and women are following orders, complying with the letter of the law, and doing monstrous things. We resist the spread of authoritarianism, at least in part by identifying the ways in which seemingly disparate needs and vulnerabilities intersect and multiply. To fight for disability rights in 2018, one must fight for immigration rights.