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"She humiliated me in the midst of the pain": When a trip to the ER comes with hate

A reader tells Univision she was verbally abused at a hospital in the midst of an illness. The woman, an undocumented immigrant, says she's never felt more fearful during the more than 20 years she's lived in the United States. A lawyer responds: "Whether or not you're undocumented is not relevant to your care."
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24 Jul 2017 – 03:34 PM EDT
The billing agent said, "Why do you illegals come to this country? What are you doing here? Go back," Gricelda told Univision. Crédito: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/GettyImages

In March, when Gricelda entered an Illinois emergency room, she was seeking relief from an intestinal obstruction. In addition to the severe pain, she was vomiting and unable to tolerate food.

But two days later, she left the hospital feeling even worse, after a billing agent allegedly lashed out at her with insults and threats over her undocumented status.

Gricelda, 53, who is from Mexico and has been in the United States since 1994, requested Univision News use only her first name. According to her testimony, the hospital employee, who identified herself as Dora Jackson, entered the room while Gricelda was under the effect of morphine and “with a feeding tube.” Jackson demanded to know why Gricelda had presented the hospital with a Mexican identification card, and why she did not have a driver’s license.

But the incident didn't stop there, according to Gricelda, who is a mother of four. Jackson then pressed for information on her immigration status and details on how she intended to pay for her medical care, even threatening to follow her. She repeatedly insulted undocumented immigrants.

“She said to me: 'How are you going to pay the hospital? I don’t know why the illegals want the hospital to pay for them,’” Gricelda said, adding that the incident occurred at Delnor Community Hospital, 45 miles west of Chicago. “Why do you illegals come to this country? What are you doing here? Go back.’” Gricelda said Jackson spoke in fluent Spanish. “She spoke to me in my language so it was perfectly clear.”

The incident occurred over two days and ultimately led Gricelda to leave the hospital before she felt better, she said.

When reached by telephone, Jackson declined to provide comment and hung up.

Christopher King, a spokesman from the Delnor Hospital, says the hospital’s financial counselors are “trained to provide information in a professional manner.”

“We believe that occurred with [this patient],” King said. “We regret [Gricelda’s] interpretation of the discussions.”

In recent months, incidents fueled by bias and hate have targeted Latinos around the country, in small towns and big cities, coast-to-coast. Gricelda’s is one of hundreds of reports that Univision has received through Documenting Hate, a project that tracks these incidents around the country since the presidential election. Hers is the only incident we've received that occurred in a hospital.

Experts say such incidents, as well as tougher immigration enforcement pushed by the Trump administration, is leading undocumented immigrants to report fewer crimes and abuses due to fears they might be reported to authorities and deported.

And that has a direct impact on health, too. According to a report from the nonpartisan Hastings Center, 80 percent of undocumented immigrants in the United States are Hispanic -- a group that is more likely to suffer from chronic illness and less likely to have health insurance compared to the general population, citing official data.

Patient protection laws

A lawyer told Univision that Gricelda should never have faced such treatment.

Any individual in the United States in need of medical care should be able to access that care without fear of intimidation, regardless of their immigration status, said Steven Monroy, a lawyer from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, MALDEF.

“Hospitals are supposed to be safe zones,” Monroy said.

He points to a number of privacy laws that safeguard patients’ information, as well as laws that protect patients from discrimination based on their race, country of origin, financial means and other factors. The Federal Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act ( EMTALA), enacted in 1986, requires medical facilities to take people in during emergencies regardless of their ability to pay.

Hospital staff have “no legal obligation to ask patients their immigration status,” Monroy said.

That goes for immigration officials, too. According to an October 24, 2011 memo titled “Enforcement Actions at or Focused on Sensitive Locations,” issued by former Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton, immigration officials cannot take enforcement action at hospitals. It also ensures that ICE agents won’t intervene at schools, places of worship, funerals, weddings or marches.

“Hospital staff should not be reaching out to ICE or inquiring about immigration status because there is no federal law that they should take it upon themselves to check,” Monroy said. “A patient has no obligation to give that information.”

States often implement their own immigrants-rights laws to further protect patients, such as ensuring that state police officers do not enter sensitive locations. In California, a law ensures health coverage to undocumented immigrants under age 19.

In May, the Illinois General Assembly passed the Illinois Trust Act, which would prevent law enforcement agencies in the state from assisting in immigration actions unless there's a warrant, and would offer protections from immigration enforcement to safe havens like schools. It’s currently awaiting final approval from the state;s Republican governor.

As a general rule, Monroy said patients should not give more information than is necessary for their treatment. “They should avoid disclosing anything related to immigration status,” he said. “If asked, say ‘why is this relevant?’”

Patients also always have a right to ask to speak with a patient advocate, the person in charge of privacy or an attorney, if they feel they’re being discriminated against, he said. Often that information is listed in the emergency room. Groups like MALDEF or the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) may also be able to provide advice.

“The sooner people reach out, the better,” Monroy said.

“I can’t get over it”

At Delnor Hospital, Gricelda told Jackson that her insistent questions were “irrelevant.” But Jackson continued to push, Gricelda said. That led Gricelda to feel increasingly worse.

"In all my life, I think that was the most horrible thing that can be done to a human being. What hurt me the most was that she came and stood in front of me while I was suffering from extreme pain,” Gricelda said.

“I had never felt such urgency to leave a place, feeling that I was in danger because of my race, my origin, my nationality … that my stay in this country was in danger and that at any moment, for all the hatred she expressed towards Mexican immigrants, she could call immigration to take me,” Gricelda added.

On her second day in the hospital, Gricelda was still in pain, with severe nausea. But she lied to a nurse: after eating, she said she felt better in order to be discharged.

"I felt vulnerable, in danger, emotionally harassed and discriminated against,” she said. “In a place where I am supposed to feel cared for and protected.”