Hospitals are not border checkpoints

by Daniel Tseghay

On March 21st, members of Sanctuary Health, a network of healthcare workers and organizers, met for a vigil in front of the Fraser Health Authority Offices, one of BC’s largest health-care providers, in Surrey. They were there to honour the victims of a practice which puts migrants without permanent residency status at risk within the healthcare system.

Undocumented immigrants are often afraid to access services, like healthcare, because they’re likely to be referred to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and deported. A Freedom of Information request made by the community group revealed that between January of 2014 to October 2015, staff at Fraser Health’s facilities made 558 referrals to the Canada Border Services Agency. Fraser Health says they contact CBSA to determine billing rates since nonresidents are charged more. But doing so keeps many people away.

March 21 Sanctuary Health rally at the Fraser Health Authority ofices in Surrey, March 21 (photo by Caelie Frampton)
March 21 Sanctuary Health rally at the Fraser Health Authority ofices in Surrey, March 21 (photo by Caelie Frampton)

The FOI also showed that Fraser Health’s policy was to have staff – physicians, nurses, and social workers – work with the financial department in facilitating deportations of undocumented patients.

Knowing this, many avoid getting care. There are reports of people with expired tourist visas being visited at their hospital bedside by CBSA officials.

We started to get phone calls from construction workers,” says Byron Cruz, a member of Sanctuary Health in an interview with Rankandfile.ca: “They say “I had this situation with my arm and I don’t want to go to the hospital because they’ll call immigration.””

Sanctuary Health was formed to deal with such situations.

“With some clients, we give direct nursing care such as dressing changes, wound care, assessment or just comforting them through a difficult time,” Sarah Reaburn, a nurse volunteering with Sanctuary Health said. The volunteers do this work while depending on free clinic space and supplies. Sanctuary Health volunteers also let people know about other places they can receive care, continuously connecting patients with trusted healthcare workers.

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“We send a message to our network explaining the situation, then any of the nurses or healthcare workers can respond and say they can see the patient at the clinic, outside of the system,” says Cruz. “We had a construction guy with an eye injury who we arranged to meet a doctor at the corner of a street. We had another situation with a guy who needed stitches. We sent a message to the network and the first person who answered was a veterinarian.”

Shortly before the vigil, on March 15th, Sanctuary Health received some welcome news. Fraser Health responded to the demands of Sanctuary Health and has said it will prevent the finance department from sharing information with immigration officials. Fraser Health has also said that since January of this year no staff members have contacted CBSA with their patients’ knowledge.

While Cruz welcomes this announcement, he hopes this will have practical benefits for patients. “How are they going to communicate internally about all these changes? And are they going to inform the public that they’re welcome to go to the hospital,” he asks. “At this time, despite the changes in procedures I still think there’s a lot of harassment coming from the financial departments.”

Sanctuary Health calls on Fraser Health to provide training for staff so that patients can be assured they will not have their status shared with CBSA.

Fortunately, most healthcare workers have no interest in helping with immigration enforcement, according to Cruz.

“The social workers actually don’t feel good about this,” he says. “They’re the main point of communication between the patients and us. They have been against this policy. And now with the change they’re happy they don’t have to do the job of pressuring people. At this time we consider them allies.”

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