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Under Trump, fighting for disability rights means fighting for immigration rights

Rosa Maria Hernandez's case shows that we must protect all vulnerable people.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents intercepted an ambulance Wednesday carrying 10-year-old Rosa Maria Hernandez. (Courtney of Sacco/Corpus Christi Caller-Times/Associated Press)

Rosa Maria Hernandez came to the United States in 2007, when she was 3 months old. She has cerebral palsy, and her parents decided to leave Mexico and seek better medical care and opportunities for her here. Ten years later, this past week, according to multiple news reports, an ambulance was taking her and an adult cousin (a U.S. citizen) between hospitals in Corpus Christi, Tex., so the child could have gall bladder surgery. But then, incredibly, U.S. immigration authorities stopped the ambulance at a checkpoint, determined Hernandez was undocumented and followed her to the hospital.

There, officials insisted the door to her hospital room be kept open constantly (apparently worried a child in surgery would manage some kind of daring escape) and later took her into custody. As of Saturday, she was still in detention and being encouraged to “voluntarily deport” herself. Her family contends that the detention facility is not equipped to care for her. Department of Homeland Security officials contend they were just following the “letter of the law.”

This is not the first story of immigration law enforcement violating the sanctity of hospitals to pursue targets. Some other undocumented parents in Texas were arrested while waiting for their child’s brain surgery. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested an undocumented Iraqi man who had been serving as the bone marrow donor for his niece.

A detainee with a brain tumor was pulled from a Texas hospital. In fact, this sort of thing has happened so often this year that congressional Democrats are attacking ICE for violating its own policy on “sensitive locations.” The agency is supposed to avoid “enforcement actions at or focused on sensitive locations such as schools, places of worship and hospitals” unless there’s a threat to public safety.

None of these instances threatened public safety.

The combination of the vulnerability of these individuals and the “just following orders” excuse from immigration officials make one thing very clear: Those of us who are fighting for disability rights cannot carry out our mission in President Trump’s America without also fighting for immigration rights.

Moreover, that fight for immigration rights has to extend beyond the case of any specific disabled child. We can’t wait for the perfect charismatic victim to get involved, then move our attention onward if that case is ameliorated. I hope the public pressure saves Rosa Maria. But real change is going to require sustained work.

The intersections of disability rights and immigration rights extend far beyond any of these cases, and they predate the Trump administration. As of 2010, the ACLU reported that 15 percent of all people in immigration detention had mental disabilities. We don’t know the number today. Meanwhile, immigration laws around the world, including in the United States, make it harder for disabled folks to immigrate. In February, the Trump administration drafted an executive order that would have made it even more difficult by banning all immigrants requiring public support. That would make the United States just as bad as Canada.

Why I wrote the Americans With Disabilities Act

Once you start looking for it, in fact, it’s clear that all crises anywhere involving movement of peoples in any context have major disability components. Throughout the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, for example, disability stories have been plentiful. War causes disability, and disabled individuals (whether sick, elderly or otherwise disabled) are much more vulnerable to the depredations of war, regardless of whether a condition was caused by the violence or was preexisting.

For example, during the war, disabled people were threatened, and more people experienced disability as a result of hospital bombings in Aleppo. Fifteen percent of all displaced people are disabled, but the number (according to the Brookings Institution) may be as high as 22 percent for Syrians. Their lives in refugee camps are fraught and tenuous because of a lack of supports. Disabled refugees, including a blind man and his family resettled in New Jersey, are among the few Syrians allowed into the United States.

Now the same stories could be told about disabled people among the Rohingya, including a horrifying cases of teenage girls with intellectual disabilities who were repeatedly raped.

I’ve taught my kids to obey the police. But my son with autism isn’t wired for that.

I’m the father of a 10-year-old boy with Down syndrome. It’s easy to imagine Rosa Maria as my son’s classmate, disappeared into a detention facility. As I watch the video of agents taking her in her hospital bed off to detention, it’s easy — indeed, it’s morally necessary — to get outraged on her behalf. But we just can’t stop there. Alas, I’ve seen far too many fellow parents of disabled children get outraged at this case without extending their focus to the deeper injustices in our immigration system.

Advocacy often begins with a single act. We need Rosa Maria back with her family. And then we must use our outrage on her behalf to see the disability rights stories embedded in immigration crackdowns and refugee crises around the world. Then we can get to work.

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