In most situations, deportation is a formal process that follows strict federal regulations. A legal and ethical loophole exists, however, in the medical world.

Medical repatriation is the process of returning a hospital patient who is an immigrant to their country of origin for long-term care. This typically occurs with undocumented immigrants who lack health insurance. They often are returned to a country that has inadequate treatment facilities, where deteriorating health, and even death, can result. Yet in the eyes of the hospital, it is a standard patient transfer.

One recent example of medical repatriation occurred the summer of 2016. Lucio Molina was having severe chest pains. His wife Blanca called 9-1-1 and he was rushed to the hospital. Lucio had open heart surgery, which he survived but ended up in a coma. He was in the process of applying for his green card, so his citizenship status created a problem for long-term care. The hospital wanted to transfer him to his native country of Mexico.

Lucio was in a coma and unable to speak for himself, so the decision was up to his wife Blanca. According to an article on National Public Radio’s Latino USA website, “she says she was pressured into making a choice she did not want to make.”

This is just one recent example of medical repatriation. How often it happens is unknown because hospitals are not required to report it. Because of this, health care deportations continue to occur with no governmental regulation.

“Discharge, Deportation and Dangerous Journeys: A Study on the Practice of Medical Repatriation,” is a 2012 report by Seton University School of Law and the New York Lawyers for Public Interest. The study found approximately 900 cases of medical repatriation from 2007 to 2012. These are just documented cases and don’t reflect whether force or coercion were used. “Hospitals are engaging in de facto deportations either without the consent of the immigrant patient or by exercising coercion to obtain consent,” the report states. 

The United States has the obligation to protect the rights of immigrants to due process under the U.S. Constitution and international law. In many ways, medical repatriation seems to be a violation of those rights and makes a good case for government regulation.