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SB-1405 Crumples Under Public Protest

February 20, 2011

In its ongoing witch hunt against undocumented workers, the Arizona State Legislature introduced another immigration-related bill this month: SB-1405. This bill would require hospital admissions staff to confirm that any person being admitted for care is a U.S. citizen. If you fail to produce the proper documentation (such as your birth certificate—something you’re sure to have on you when you get hit by a bus—or your U.S. passport, or a certificate of naturalization), then an immigrations officer must be contacted.

If you are undocumented, you can get emergency care under SB-1405, but right after that, you will be arrested and deported. If you tried to get admitted to the hospital for some other reason—such as an operation or outpatient procedure—you proceed directly to jail and the deportation process; medical treatment would be forbidden by the new law.

If the hospital admissions staff or an emergency room doctor or nurse does not get a hold of ICE authorities, he or she will be arrested as well.

In explaining his rationalization for this legislation, Senator President Russell Pearce, father of SB-1040, insisted that he was protecting legal citizens, stating, “I get calls from doctors and nurses every day that work in the emergency room, talking about the abuse, the millions of dollars spent for folks who come in for pregnancy tests, sniffles…they [immigrants] use emergency room services as their primary care. When do we stand up for the taxpayers?…Quit inviting people over the border. We give them free stuff, free medical…enough is enough.”

This is a fascinating claim, but one that doesn’t stand up to statistics. Although in Russell Pearce’s world, it seems only immigrants go to the emergency room rather than to primary care doctors, the fact is that most poor people, citizens or not, do the same. In a study done in the 1990s, folks using ER care because they had no alternative tended to have annual incomes of $10,000 or less (68 percent) and were usually unemployed (62.6 percent). There was no one predominant racial group that used ER facilities more than the others in this way; the conclusion was “members of racial and ethnic minority groups and those of low socioeconomic status often depend upon ERs as a regular source of care,” and cited Blacks and Latino/as as equally frequent visitors to emergency rooms. Blaming undocumented immigrants for over-stressed ER conditions in this country is ridiculous.

Among those who definitely weren’t amused were Arizona doctors’ and nurses’ associations. Dr. Lucas Restrepo of Phoenix went as far as the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine to publish his colleagues’ concerns. First and foremost, he stated it was unacceptable to criminalize doctors and nurses for practicing in a medially ethical fashion and for honoring the tradition of protecting patients, both from injury and from harm by others. Restrepo wrote, “This legislation, if unchallenged, will force health care providers to choose between the dignity of their profession and the indignity of violating the law.”

Arizona medical professsionals were even more vocal about the fact that driving people away from medical care for fear of deportation would create a health care crisis worse than the one already existing in the state. And hospital administrators objected to the idea of forcing their employees to act as unofficial immigration officers engaged in what amounted to a perpetual sting operation.

Senator Pearce may have anticipated some backlash from the medical world, but nothing like the chorus of objections that poured into the media as soon as the bill was announced. In addition, there was another, more surprising group that immediately rose up to protest the bill: the Arizona church leaders. Reverend Carmen Guerrero, who last year rallied ministers and priests across the country to protest SB-1070, was already organized to decry SB-1405 as soon as it was launched. “[A law] that prevents a person from seeking medical help in any hospital is cruel, and I will not believe that God is not taking these injustices into account,” she said to the press.

The unified front of medical experts and church leaders, all hitting the media at the same time, worked. Legislators backed down, and a preliminary vote count showed that SB-1405 did not have enough support to pass. The bill slunk back into committee for rewriting, tabling, or eventual rejection.

One can only hope that when a bill like SB-1405 comes to Michigan—as it undoubtedly will—that our community, immigration advocates, and medical professionals put up as strong a protest as the one launched last week in Arizona.


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