Doctors: Immigration crackdown raising health care concerns

Legislative briefing held to build support for Safe Communities Act

AT A LEGISLATIVE BRIEFING Wednesday hosted by lawmakers seeking passage of the Safe Communities Act, physicians, pediatricians, and domestic abuse prevention advocates shared anecdotes about undocumented immigrants refusing to seek medical care or report abuse because they fear being reported to federal immigration authorities. 

Fiona Danaher, a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital, said that medical professionals are increasingly hesitant to report their suspicions of sexual or physical abuse of children to the state Department of Children and Families if any member of the household lacks legal immigration status, “lest the report does more harm than good.” 

She recalled one family where the father was an undocumented immigrant and the mother was a US citizen suffering from bipolar disorder. The mother, against medical advice, tried to remove from the hospital a child who was suffering from a serious infection, and the father “felt powerless to intervene,” Danaher said. 

The same mother was also allegedly abusing an adult step son, according to Danaher. The father raised the issue with a social worker, who wanted to get the Department of Children and Families involved. The father begged off, Danaher said, fearful the mother would turn him into ICE for raising his concerns. 

“The medical providers hesitated,” said Danaher, worried that a misstep could lead to deportation of the child’s more reliable caregiver. Only once the child disclosed physical abuse by her mother was a report finally made. She said DCF workers assured MGH’s medical team that they would avoid collaborating with immigration authorities.  

Occasionally, though, DCF needs to relay information to local police, something doctors and advocates are concerned about. Some police departments and sheriff’s offices pass along information to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which would be prohibited under the Safe Communities Act. 

Maria Pizzimenti, a director at REACH Beyond Domestic Violence, relayed the story of a Guatemalan woman who was beaten by her husband but refused to let him take her to a hospital because of fear of deportation. Pizzimenti said it’s not uncommon for abusers to use the threat of deportation to prevent partners from reporting sexual or domestic abuse.  

Massachusetts Safe Communities Coalition, and Representatives Ruth Balser and Liz Miranda, and Senator Jamie Eldridge sponsored and were present at the briefing, along with dozens of other legislators.  

This bill is incredibly important,” said Miranda. “Whether it’s receiving health care or not being afraid to call 911, its critically important for us to be pushing from the inside. 

The Massachusetts attorney general’s office recently certified a 2020 ballot initiative to change state law so local police authorities can detain people on civil immigration violations. The ballot effort has been led by Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson and RepNorman Orrall, a Republican from Lakeville. Supporters have until December 4 to submit at least 80,240 signatures.  

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

“Many of our patients have been putting themselves in danger because they’re afraid to talk to local police,” said Aisha James, a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital. She said half her patients are in immigrant families, and that she has seen “increased anxiety and depression” during visits.  

James said she supports the Safe Communities Act because doctors can never be sure if they can tell patients “with certainty” that courts and police departments won’t share information with US Customs and Immigration Enforcement. “It would be great to have something universal,” she said.  

According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are at least 173,000 unauthorized immigrants in Massachusetts.