Houston Mom Arrested At Gynecologist’s Appointment May Face Deportation

Reproductive and immigration rights advocates have said that many undocumented Texans delay health care for fear of deportation.
Reproductive and immigration rights advocates have said that many undocumented Texans delay health care for fear of deportation.

After her arrest in an exam room at her gynecologist’s office in early September, a Houston mother of three remains in the Harris County jail while her family and attorney fight to keep her from being deported back to Mexico. A representative for the office’s parent group, Memorial Hermann, told the Observer on Monday that staff did not know the woman was undocumented.

Blanca Borrego arrived at the Memorial Hermann Northeast Women’s Healthcare clinic in Kingwood on September 3 for a scheduled appointment accompanied by her 22-year-old and 8-year-old daughters. A year earlier, she had seen the same doctor at a different clinic and was diagnosed with a cyst after presenting with abdominal pain.

According to the Houston Press, which first reported the arrest on Friday, Borrego was asked by clinic staff to fill out paperwork and present an ID. After giving staff a Texas driver’s license, Borrego and her daughters waited for nearly three hours before she was called back to an exam room. Harris County Sheriff’s deputies were waiting there to arrest Borrego, according the Houston immigration attorney, Clarissa Guajardo, who is representing Borrego.

“When they did the arrest, they turned to the [oldest] daughter and said this is a deportation case, that they were going to turn her in to immigration [authorities],” Guajardo told the Observer.

Read more: America Ruiz, daughter of Blanca Borrego, speaks out on her mother’s arrest.

According to Harris County District Clerk records, 44-year-old Borrego has been charged with a felony for tampering with government documents, a criminal charge prompted by a fake Social Security card that law enforcement officials found in Borrego’s purse, Guajardo said. The driver’s license that Borrego gave the clinic was fake, but it’s unclear how staff discovered that fact and why they involved law enforcement.

“They based [the charge] on a Social Security card that they found after her arrest, not on the driver’s license that she showed the receptionist. … I just find that sequence troubling,” Guajardo said. “They basically went on a fishing expedition to charge her with the worst.”

Alex Rodriguez Loessin, corporate communications spokesperson for Memorial Hermann, told the Observer that the health care group does not “report any undocumented patients to law enforcement,” and that Borrego was reported “because of a potentially false identification presented at the clinic.” She said Memorial Hermann had no knowledge of Borrego’s “resident status.”

Guajardo said Borrego’s arrest itself violates federal HIPAA law, which protects patient privacy. Guajardo said medical personnel are obligated to notify law enforcement should a patient be a danger to herself or others or make a violent threat. Borrego made no such threat, Guajardo said.

On top of being unable to afford Borrego’s $35,000 bond, Borrego’s family is reluctant to pay it until Guajardo can ensure Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will not place an immigration detainer on Borrego, which would require the Harris County Sheriff’s Office to notify ICE before releasing her.

Guajardo is working on securing a commitment from ICE to hold off on the detainer and hopes to raise money to help pay for Borrego’s release. Guajardo said she is also meeting with the Mexican Consulate.

“If they post [bail] and there’s an immigration detainer, [Borrego’s family] will lose that money,” Guajardo said.

The Houston Press reported that Borrego had moved from Mexico to Houston with her family in 2003, overstaying her visa by 12 years. Borrego’s oldest daughter, a 23-year-old recent college graduate, and her brother have obtained temporary legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Guajardo said Borrego would be eligible for temporary legal status under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA), but a Brownsville federal district judge has placed an injunction on the program. Her husband, fearing deportation after his wife’s arrest, has stopped working.

“The medical care for a woman, and a wellness visit, is a pretty fundamental right,” Guajardo said.

Representatives for nationwide health care and immigration rights organizations have long worried that undocumented individuals will forego medical care for fear of deportation.

During the last Texas legislative session, lawmakers passed House Bill 3994, which requires all Texans seeking an abortion to present a form of government ID, otherwise doctors who want to risk a state health department investigation can provide abortion care to undocumented Texans as long as they report that they did so to the health department.

During debate over the law, reproductive rights advocates expressed concern that under HB 3994, Texans without one of the acceptable forms of ID could be forced to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term or might be forced to choose non-clinical measures to self-induce an abortion. That same concern goes for undocumented women living south of internal border checkpoints unable to travel north to obtain an abortion, as Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, House Bill 2, has forced all but one provider in the lower Rio Grande Valley to close.

Rio Grande Valley activists and organizers have also told the Observer that undocumented or mixed status families live in constant fear of deportation due to the increased law enforcement presence along the Texas-Mexico border. The number of officers will only increase after the Legislature signed off this session on an additional $800 million in border security spending.

In a statement issued over the weekend, the Texas policy director for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) said Borrego’s arrest “raises serious questions about patient privacy and human rights of immigrant women in Texas.”

Many immigrant women, said NLIRH’s Ana Rodriguez Defrates, “live with lumps in their breasts and daily pain,” foregoing care because they fear deportation.

NLIRH and other activist groups have said they are planning public protests in support of Borrego for later this week.

Correction: Borrego’s eldest daughter’s age is 22 years old, not 23 years old, as the Observer originally reported. This story has been updated to correct the error. 

Alexa Garcia-Ditta is a staff writer (and former intern) covering women's health, reproductive health and health care access.

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Published at 5:24 pm CST