In a 14-1 vote, Philadelphia becomes first city to deem ‘medical deportation’ unlawful

After a three-year campaign, immigrant advocates are one step closer to banning the practice of medical deportation.

People holding up signs in City COuncil

Claudia Martínez (right) holds up her sign that pushes to end medical deportations, next to Adrianna Torres-Garcia during a City Council meeting. They have been at the front of the three-year campaign. (Courtesy of Free Migration Project)

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Philadelphia has become the first city to make medical deportations unlawful.

On Thursday afternoon, immigration advocates and Philadelphia City Council members braced for the council’s vote on bill no. 230649, the culmination of three years’ worth of work.

Then it passed, 14-1.

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“I’m just really pleased that Philadelphia took a stand on the right side of this issue for immigrants,” said Adrianna Torres-Garcia, deputy director of the Free Migration Project. “This is a really beautiful way to start the year.”

Torres-Garcia stood shoulder to shoulder with those who had been working on the “End Medical Deportation” campaign for the last several years. Community members and representatives from the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, Juntos, and Temple Law were present and cheering.

However, several said this is just the beginning. The law will still need to be implemented into hospital and medical facilities’ policies, which takes time.

Some basic definitions

  • Medical deportation: The forcible act of medical repatriation without consent, consideration of health insurance eligibility, or consideration of health risks to the patient
  • Medical repatriation: The act of accomplishing or arranging for the physical removal of a noncitizen patient, who is injured or ill, from the U.S. to another country

Jennifer Lee, a professor at Temple University’s law school, is cautiously optimistic.

“It’s really important that we’re the first city that has passed this law nationally, but on the other hand, I do have to say that it’s symptomatic of larger issues that we have in this country,” Lee said. “Including what our immigration policy looks like as well as the fact that we don’t have Universal Health Care.”

The new bill amends the city code to make it illegal to deport immigrants while in health care settings without their consent.

“Courts aren’t involved, [U.S. Department of Homeland Security] is not involved in any of these deportations. These hospitals don’t have to report to anyone when this happens, why it happens,” Torres-Garcia explained.

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Benjamin Gamarra, a Philadelphia resident and supporter of this campaign, was overjoyed at the vote, pumping his fist into the air.

“Este es un buen punto — eh, score como se dice en inglés — para la comunidad,” Gamarra said. “Esto va ayudar a que empezando aquí en la ciudad de Philadelphia, que los amigos sean tratados con más decencia como todos deberíamos. Esto no ha terminado.”

He said this is a “score” for the city, and for all his friends who deserve decent and humane treatment. But he said they have more to do.

This is the first bill of its kind. Now, hospitals will have clearly defined guidelines to prevent deportation and ensure immigrant patients and their families are informed of all possible choices.

The bill is sponsored by Philadelphia City Councilmembers Jim Harrity, Kenyatta Johnson, Sharon Vaughn, Jamie Gauthier, and Quetzy Lozada.

Torres-Garcia said this bill will be a beacon for other cities on how to better care for immigrant communities.

“There’s nothing else like this in the entire United States,” they said. “This bill will get people the opportunity to have information about their loved ones’ health care needs, in their own language, and make sure that they are able to decide if they want their loved one to receive care here in the United States or in another country.”

Before that, protocols were murky. If an immigrant patient was hurt or ill and they were undocumented as well as uninsured, the hospital or third-party transportation company would have to make the call to transfer them to their native country.

Their care was contingent on status, advocates say.

However, patients were never told what was happening and, many times, were not given interpreters.

Immigrant patients would often piecemeal the information they could understand without understanding they had a right for an interpreter, as what happened with Claudia Martinez’s family. Martinez’s uncle, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, has become known for his story during this campaign.

She said he is doing well and recovering after being in an accident in 2020 while also facing deportation. At the time, the family struggled to communicate with providers. Now, Martinez said, they know their rights.

“No tengan miedo de hablar,” Martinez said. “Aunque algo parezca imposible para nosotros si se puede. Ahora yo entiendo y reconozco que tenemos derechos. Que vale la peno luchar para los de mas.”

Translated, Martinez told her community not to be afraid and that although it may appear impossible for them to get help, it is possible. She also said it’s worth standing up for others in similar situations.

Medical deportation is also known as “medical repatriation.” The practice transfers immigrant and migrant patients out of U.S.-based hospitals “to their country of origin to avoid the burden of costly hospital care,” according to a study by the McGill Journal of Global Health.

Scholars note that the practice has become more common as migration has increased recently.

“Medical deportation has become a unique method of U.S. immigration enforcement that is produced through restrictive healthcare laws and policies that bar irregular im/migrants from accessing long-term healthcare coverage,” the McGill study continued.

Being in the hospital is costly and distressing already without the fear of being deported and taken from family or support networks, advocates say. They contend migrants and immigrants deserve the right to access basic human rights, which includes long-term health care.

“This is making history right for immigrants rights,” Torres-Garcia said. “We are going to be a Pioneer City.”

A previous version of this story stated that Adrianna Torres-Garcia was mentioning Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services, rather than the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

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