Blanca Borrego has been living in the U.S. illegally for a dozen years, so she didn't think she was risking arrest when she went to her gynecologist's office this month. Her husband works and has private health insurance for the family.
But sheriff's deputies surprised the mother of three, handcuffing her in front of her 8-year-old, U.S.-born daughter and taking her to jail, where she was held in lieu of $35,000 bond. The charge: tampering with a government record, a felony.
Borrego, 44, originally from Monterrey, Mexico, had given the staff at the clinic a fake Texas driver's license as identification and they alerted deputies, who found a fake Social Security card in her purse, leading to the charges. She has no criminal record.
County and hospital officials said they were simply enforcing the law. Immigrant advocates are planning protests, complaining the arrest will lead other immigrants to avoid necessary medical treatment.
Borrego's 22-year-old daughter also accompanied her to the appointment and recounted what happened, but asked not to be identified because she has a pending application for legal status under the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
She said her mother had been seeing Dr. David Bonilla for about 18 months for a cyst that was causing her abdominal pain. She normally saw Bonilla at a different office, so when she arrived at the Memorial Hermann Medical Group Northeast Women's Healthcare clinic outside Houston on Sept. 3, a staff member asked her to fill out new paperwork and submit identification and her insurance card.
Borrego, with her daughters, waited to be called in to see the doctor. Two hours passed.
"I went up to ask what was going on because we were getting ready to leave," the daughter said, but clinic staffers just told her to keep waiting. "I could tell something was wrong because they kept peeking out."
Finally, a staffer called Borrego and escorted her back toward the exam rooms, where a deputy was waiting, in view of her daughters, to handcuff and take her to a waiting patrol car.
The next time the 22-year-old spoke to her mother, she was calling from the county jail.
"I know she's scared. I can hear it in her voice," the daughter said of their daily phone calls.
She said her mother worried most about her 8-year-old sister, who has been asking a lot of questions.
"She asks if my mom is going to get deported. I tell her I don't know," the older daughter said.
The 22-year-old graduated this year from Sam Houston State University with a degree in kinesiology and wants to work as a physical therapist. Her 19-year-old brother is working and studying at Lone Star College.
"We're not bad people. We don't hurt anybody. My siblings and I have done everything right, and we just want to help my mom so she can be with us and not worry about getting detained anymore," she said, sobbing.
A local bondsman voluntarily posted Borrego's $35,000 bond, and her attorney, Clarissa Guajardo, was awaiting her release late Tuesday. No hold was placed on Borrego by immigration officials, who also had not contacted the family or Guajardo.
Guajardo, who met this week with immigrant and Latino health activists as well as officials from the Mexican consulate, said the arrest violated medical privacy.
She acknowledged that the driver's license Borrego gave the clinic staff was fake, but said, "It was private insurance that was being paid out of her husband's job: Where's the victim?"
Bonilla did not return calls Monday. Clinic staffers said he was not involved in reporting Borrego.
Alex Rodriguez Loessin, a Memorial Hermann spokeswoman, stressed that "we do not report any undocumented patients to law enforcement."
"In this case, law enforcement was called because of a potentially false identification presented at the clinic. Memorial Hermann was never aware of the patient's resident status, and first heard of her resident status when it was reported by media," Loessin said. "Memorial Hermann does not exclude, deny benefits to, or otherwise discriminate against any person who presents at any of our facilities.
"It was clear to the individual who received the ID that it was false," she said.
The driver's license featured Borrego's picture and address, but the number belonged to a man, the card was the wrong color, and the hologram was missing, according to Jeff McShan, a spokesman for Harris County district attorney's office.
When Borrego was booked at the jail, deputies discovered the Social Security card in her purse, which was computer-generated, said a sheriff's office spokesman, Deputy Thomas Gilliland. Gilliland said his office was obligated to respond to the clinic, just as it would any other merchant reporting suspicious documents, and that medical privacy was not an issue.
Legal experts agreed.
"If they know of a violation of the law, they're required to report that," said Allison Hoffman, a UCLA School of Law professor who specializes in healthcare.
Hoffman said doctors usually didn't have an incentive to report patients living in the country illegally, either because they're pursuing payment or because they believe it's their duty to treat them.
Denise Gilman, director of the immigration clinic at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin, said that although Borrego's arrest probably did not violate medical privacy laws, "it certainly is a violation of the doctor-patient relationship, of the trust."
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the conservative Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, said the arrest showed "due diligence on the part of the healthcare provider."
"It's their responsibility to report this sort of thing. It's not up to a clerk to decide how they're prosecuted. But it is good practice for healthcare employees to be on the lookout for document fraud," she said.
Immigrant advocates said they were planning several protests in Houston this week to draw attention to Borrego and other immigrants who might be afraid to seek treatment.
"Medical settings should be free from immigration enforcement," said Ana Rodriguez DeFrates, state policy and advocacy director in Texas for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, who was among those organizing protests.
She said Borrego's arrest "will no doubt reverberate in Latina communities across Texas," noting that many Texas Latinas die from cervical and breast cancer due to lack of preventive care "in large part because they can't access medical providers, and when they do, they fear precisely what happened to this woman."
Rodriguez DeFrates said law enforcement officials should ask themselves, "With the limited resources for immigration enforcement we have, is this really where the threat exists: where women come in to get their healthcare needs met, with their children?"
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