One week before Thanksgiving 2014, President Barack Obama announced his plan to temporarily protect millions of undocumented immigrants from being deported. In a highly-anticipated televised speech, Obama said he'd finally chosen to act unilaterally (as other presidents have done on immigration over the past 50 years), in light of a Congress that refused to fix the country's broken system of immigration laws. Immigration enforcement was supposed to target criminals, not mothers of American-born children, Obama said, adding, "Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents' arms, or are we a nation that values families, and works to keep them together?”
It's unclear how many of Texas's estimated 1.5 million undocumented immigrants would have been shielded from deportation under Obama's executive action, but Blanca Borrego and her husband almost certainly met the bar. They came from Mexico and overstayed their visas some 12 years ago. Neither had a criminal record. Their 8-year-old daughter was born on Texas soil.
Still, America Ruiz, the couple's eldest daughter, says her parents were skeptical Obama's announcement would really bring any relief, like legal work permits and valid, temporary IDs. “I know they really didn't get their hopes up,” she said. “It was a nice speech, but they weren't sure it would really help.”
It seems their uncertainty wasn't unwarranted. As expected, Texas officials spearheaded a lawsuit against the Obama administration, arguing the president had exceeded his authority and bypassed Congress. In a stinging 123-page ruling issued three months after Obama's speech, Brownsville federal Judge Andrew Hanen effectively stopped the program in its tracks. (The court battle has only grown more contentious in recent months.)
Meanwhile, immigrants like Borrego were left to make do in the shadows. Earlier this month, Borrego went to an Atascocita women's health clinic for a routine check-up with her gynecologist. When asked for identification to confirm she was on her husband's employer-provided health insurance, Borrego provided clinic staff a fake ID. It appears that while Borrego sat in the waiting room of Memorial Hermann's Northeast Women's Healthcare clinic, staff had called police out to the scene. Harris County Sheriff's deputies greeted Borrego when she was called back to the examination room.
Borrego was ultimately charged with tampering with a government record, a third-degree felony, because of a fake Social Security card deputies found in her purse after she'd already been arrested, according to her attorney Clarissa Guajardo. While Guajardo questions whether the actions by clinic staff violated patient privacy laws under HIPAA, some say Borrego's arrest points to the everyday hazards immigrant families face with Obama's executive order tied up in the courts.
“It breaks my heart to think this family would be safe, that they wouldn't have to go through this if not for the opposition to that executive order,” said Ana Rodriguez DeFrates, Texas policy director for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.
DeFrates says Borrego's arrest only underscores a fear that already keeps immigrants like Borrego from seeking necessary medical care. “Whether the fear is always valid or not, the result is still the same,” she says. “Women can go months or even years without the medical care they need and deserve.” DeFrates says she worries women like Borrego could suffer from breast or cervical cancer if they fail to get preventative care because they're afraid clinic staff will report them to law enforcement.
Ruiz told the Houston Press that her mother posted bail and was set to be released Tuesday afternoon. Ruiz and the Texas Organizing Project have planned a rally outside of Memorial Hermann's headquarters this Thursday at 11 a.m. While Memorial Hermann wouldn't answer questions from the Press last week, the hospital put out this statement late Tuesday that reads in part: "We do not ask patients about residency or immigration status nor do we report an undocumented patient to law enforcement. To be clear, this incident has nothing to do with immigration."
Guajardo says immigration officials haven't yet put a detention hold on her client and hopes she'll be allowed to stay at home while her criminal case is pending. Still, a criminal conviction could kill any chances Borrego would receive legal status in the future.
“It's still a matter of trying to get those charges dismissed,” Guajardo told the Press. “I still have a real problem with the way the arrest was carried out. Clinic staff lured her into an exam room so she could be detained by law enforcement. It was healthcare workers acting as law enforcement. I just have a very hard time with that.”
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.