Yet that’s what appears to have happened to the undocumented woman on Sunday, according to advocates who had spoken to her family, as authorities called the ambulance and then followed her to a nearby hospital. The agents stayed with her inside the emergency room for nearly five hours on Sunday, refusing to budge even as doctors and nurses came to ask her questions and give her medication.
Thomas Kennedy, who filmed videos documenting the incident, told The Washington Post the incident raises questions about the line — or lack thereof — between immigration enforcement and emergency medical care. He declined to name the woman out of concern for her safety.
“A hospital should be a place where a patient is protected from interrogation,” Kennedy, the political director at the Florida Immigrant Coalition, said in an interview. “You shouldn’t have a Border Patrol agent right there with you while you’re getting treatment."
Less has been documented about Border Patrol’s place in hospitals elsewhere in the 100-mile “border zone,” where the agency can operate with a heightened kind of authority. That area, which encompasses a majority of the U.S. population, includes any point in the country that’s within 100 miles of a coastline, Canada or Mexico — including the entirety of states like Florida, Michigan and Massachusetts.
In the border zone, agents can stop and question anyone they suspect of having committed immigration violations, as authorities indicated they had done on Sunday.
The woman, her ex-husband, and two children were driving home from Haulover Beach Park when they were pulled over by a Border Patrol car, its sirens ringing. She is in the U.S. illegally, officials said.
Upon apprehending the woman, Border Patrol took her to nearby Aventura Hospital and Medical Center, less than 30 minutes north of downtown Miami, where an agent insisted on remaining inside Emergency Room No. 26 as she received medical attention. For nearly five hours, the agent stayed put, either inside the room where the woman was being treated, or right outside an open door.
A representative for Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the agency, said in a Monday statement that agents had called the ambulance, accompanied the woman and then taken her to a Border Patrol station, according to “standard processing procedures.”
Border Patrol’s Miami office “does not conduct any enforcement operations in hospitals,” the spokesperson said. “However agents will transport persons in custody and remain with them until medically treated and cleared.”
CBP’s written policies note that its officers, which includes Border Patrol, should call an ambulance when a detainee starts experiencing a medical emergency, such as a heart attack or trouble breathing. At least one agent must follow the ambulance until medical officials decide if they need more attention, according to CBP policy.
The rule provides little clarity about what should happen if and when a detainee is hospitalized. Besides documenting the incident, an agent must “follow their operational office’s policies and procedures,” the guidelines say. A detainee’s private medical information must be protected and “disseminated only to those personnel with a legitimate need to know."
Kennedy charged that didn’t happen. The hospital acted “irresponsibly” by allowing the agent to stand inside or so close to the room, he said, and may have violated patient privacy rules under the HIPAA Security Rule.
“This woman is under extreme duress,” he said he told the officer. “Having a Border Patrol agent right now is not safe for her information. She’s not in the right state of mind to be questioned.”
A viral video posted to Twitter by another Florida Immigrant Coalition staffer shows Kennedy and other members of the group clashing with the Border Patrol agent and questioning why he needed to stay with the woman as she received medical attention.
“What warrant? We don’t need a warrant for her. Who told you that?” the official told them in Spanish.
“To be here, you need a warrant,” Kennedy shot back.
“We don’t need a warrant. Where did you get that from?” the agent insisted.
“What law? What do you know about the law?” the agent said, before a hospital employee cut off the conversation in English: “Alright, I’m going to ask you guys to step outside.”
Immigration attorney Alexandra Audate, who arrived a short time later, said the patient was not allowed to consult a lawyer away from the Border Patrol agent, thus making it difficult to receive proper legal advice.
“No one should have to be subjected to having a perfect stranger in a hospital room while discussing their medical history or having an emergency medical need,” Audate told The Post. “There should be certain boundaries.”
The incident ultimately points to what some immigration advocates and medical professionals say is a growing trend of aggressive enforcement tactics hurting patients’ access to care.
“U.S. and international laws protect the right to nondiscriminatory access to health care for all individuals,” the nonprofit group Physicians for Human Rights wrote in a June report. “But, in certain instances, loopholes permit enforcement actions in medical facilities which interfere with this right.”
Estrella Madrigal, a 23-year-old from Honduras, said she was never allowed to speak in private with the doctors treating her at a Tucson hospital after she crossed the border and asked for asylum.
“I just kept my mouth shut,” she told Arizona Public Media, adding that she did not mention the physical abuse she had suffered before coming to the United States.
In other instances, Border Patrol also appears to have detained immigrants while they’ve sought out medical care — a tactic that advocates say can keep others from getting help when they’re sick.
In October 2017, an undocumented 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, Rosa Maria Hernandez, was arrested in Texas while being transferred from one hospital to another. Two years earlier, a woman was put into deportation proceedings when she presented fake ID at a gynecologist appointment in Houston.
In Florida, the woman faced a fate that advocates said can cause similar sorts of fearmongering, or put others seeking treatment in the hospital at risk: Once she was released from the Aventura facility, Border Patrol put her back in their vehicle and drove her away, Kennedy said. As of late Sunday night, her family and lawyers were still trying to locate her.