Last week, the United States faced a defining moment when ICE agents arrested a 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, Rosamaria Hernandez. Rosamaria is currently recovering from gallbladder surgery in an immigration detention center away from her family. On the way to her surgery, federal agents followed her ambulance, stood guard outside her room, and refused to allow medical staff to close the door while they treated her. Against medical advice, the agents then proceeded to pull Rosamaria from the hospital where she was receiving care. Government employees, reporting that they are just doing their job, intend to deport Rosamaria back to Mexico. She has lived in the United States since she was three months old.
Rosamaria Hernandez has become the face of the Disabled Latinx movement. Rosamaria’s family initially crossed the border from Mexico to get treatment for medical complications associated with her cerebral palsy. Rosamaria’s parents made the decision to bring their disabled daughter to the United States for healthcare in order to save her life. Now they are being punished for doing so. Worse still, Rosamaria’s story is not unique. Few Americans know or understand the challenges disabled immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, face.
We still have a long way to go when it comes to healthcare reform and extending health care protections for all. Disabled undocumented immigrants remain disproportionately uninsured and without proper medical care. It is a popular myth that undocumented immigrants collect welfare (for example:Medicaid, food assistance and Social Security). However, federal law since 1996 bars most new immigrants from these programs for at least five years. Undocumented immigrants are entirely barred from recieving these supports. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, did not extend health care insurance benefits to undocumented immigrants. Instead, approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants are left with no option but the emergency room. This system prohibits disabled undocumented immigrants from preventative care and necessary treatment. Moreover, stories like Rosamaria’s will only further deter undocumented people from seeking treatment in even life or death situations.
In September, the administration announced that it would roll back the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA is a program that granted some safety to undocumented immigrants, like Rosamaria, who were brought to the United States as children. However, for many DACA-eligible disabled immigrants, this program was not enough. Even with work permits, there are barriers for people with disabilities to enter the workforce. After conducting interviews with several DACAmented individuals who are disabled or have a disabled family member, I quickly picked up a pattern. First was the uncertainty. Everyone I interviewed stated that they lived day-to-day wondering when DACA would be taken away from them.
DACA did not ensure employment, and if it did, their disability experience defined their employment experience. One person with a learning disability had applied for several jobs without success, noting that DACA did not do anything to address the ableism rampant in employment practices. Some people I spoke to who received DACA and found employment had to provide for other disabled undocumented family members who could not. Other people who were DACAmented and disabled found jobs providing expertise in employment related to disability. One of my interviewees, Carlos, for example, worked at the disability center at his university. It is not uncommon to find undocumented folks, disabled or nondisabled, working in the disability service industry. Carlos is proud of the work he has achieved, and worries who will take his place once his DACA permit expires.
This is a defining moment for the disability rights communities, immigrant rights communities, and the emerging Disabled Latinx Movement. As both communities work on their respective issues, including healthcare and immigration, we must remember that our issues intersect and our communities include individuals with multiple identities. Importantly, we are more powerful together. As the story of Rosamaria reminds us, we are fighting the same battles. As a co-founder of the National Coalition for Latinxs with Disabilities, I speak for everyone in the coalition that federal immigration agents should not be waiting, like vultures, to deport people who are sick and hospitalized. People should not be punished for accessing lifesaving medical treatment. Rosamaria deserves to be treated with humanity, just as all disabled undocumented immigrants do.