Blanca Borrego and her two daughters had been sitting in the waiting room of the Northeast Women's Healthcare clinic in Atascocita for nearly two hours. The last time Borrego had seen her gynecologist was last year, when the doctor discovered the pain in her abdomen had been caused by a cyst.
When Borrego arrived at the clinic last Thursday for her routine annual exam, staff told her they needed to update her file and, after she filled out some paperwork, they asked for an ID. Borrego, an undocumented immigrant who overstayed her visa some 12 years ago, handed staff a fake driver's license. Then she waited. Borrego's eldest daughter, who asked that her name not be published, says her mother was about to give up and leave when staff finally called her back into an examination room.
Minutes later, Borrego's daughter saw Harris County Sheriff's deputies march her mother out of the clinic. She says her 8-year-old sister started to cry when she saw the handcuffs.
“We're going to take her downtown, she presented a form of false identification,” Borrego's daughter recalled the deputy saying. He said their mother's bond would probably be around $20,000, and added, "She's going to get deported."
Harris County District Clerk's records show Borrego was charged with one felony count of tampering with a government record. Borrego's attorney, Clarissa Guajardo, says the charge stems from the fake Social Security card deputies found in Borrego's purse after she was arrested at her gynecologist's office.
Guajardo says she's troubled that a clinic would call the cops on an undocumented immigrant trying to access healthcare simply because staffers suspected a fake ID. While Borrego hadn't before visited the Northeast Women's clinic, which is part of the Memorial Hermann Medical Group, she did have a standing doctor-patient relationship with the gynecologist she'd been scheduled to see. Borrego's husband, also undocumented, provided healthcare for the family through his job.
Exemptions to federal patient privacy laws, commonly known as HIPAA, do exist so that healthcare providers can alert law enforcement when, for instance, a patient threatens to do physical harm to himself or others. But Guajardo doubts such exemptions apply to clinic staff who suspect a patient of being undocumented or presenting a fake ID.
“They took her into that examination room solely for the purpose of being arrested,” Guajardo told the Houston Press. “I just have a very hard time with that. I think it's a violation of HIPAA laws.” Borrego's daughter says it's unclear if her mother's doctor even knew police were being called in to arrest one of his patients. In response to questions from the Press (like whether it's Memorial Hermann policy to call the police if staffers suspect patients of being undocumented immigrants or of using fraudulent documents to obtain a spouse's employer-provided healthcare), Memorial Hermann spokeswoman Alex Loessin said an email, "As you know, because of patient privacy, I am unable to provide comment."
The daughter, who recently graduated from Sam Houston State University, says the family left Mexico for Houston in the summer of 2003. While the family overstayed their visas, both her and her brother were ultimately granted temporary legal status through the Obama Administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Still, the daughter says her work permit recently expired, so she hasn't been able to find a job and start her career—which she says is desperately needed, especially now, so her family can continue to pay the bills. Her father, now afraid of deportation himself, has stopped going to work, she says.
Borrego is currently in the Harris County jail on a $35,000 bond. Family has yet to bond her out, fearing an immigration detainer might keep her in lockup regardless of how much money they pay. Guajardo says she's asked U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials not to file one so Borrego can get out and be with family while her criminal case is pending.
Still, it's unclear what will ultimately happen because of Borrego's immigration status. She and her husband have a child who was born in the United States, which would make legal permanent resident status possible, Guajardo says. But ultimately, that depends on what happens to her criminal case in Harris County. If Borrego is convicted of a felony, she could very likely be deported back to Mexico, Guajardo says.
Guajardo still has questions about the legitimacy of Borrego's arrest at the women's healthcare clinic last week. “It's a basic human right to be able to get medical care,” she said. “It wasn't like she was getting public assistance, even. She had an established doctor-patient relationship with that gynecologist. This shouldn't have happened like this.”