When they take the Hippocratic Oath, doctors declare that “warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.” It’s unclear which of those three virtues the staff at the Northeast Women’s Healthcare clinic in Harris County were employing when Blanca Borrego, a patient who came into the OB-GYN’s office for a follow-up appointment after she’d been treated for a cyst last year, was arrested under strange circumstances. Borrego, when asked for an ID as she filled out paperwork, handed the staff a driver’s license that she had altered.
Tampering with a government-issued ID is a crime, and it appears Borrego did so because she is in the U.S. without documentation. Whatever one’s thoughts about undocumented immigration and altering government records, though, the fact that her gynecologist’s office felt it was their responsibility to serve in a law enforcement capacity because it suspected one of its patients of using a fake ID is a weird view of the role of a health care professional. But, as the Houston Press reported this week, that’s exactly what happened:
When Borrego arrived at the clinic last Thursday for her routine annual exam, staff told her they needed to update her file and, after she filled out some paperwork, they asked for an ID. Borrego, an undocumented immigrant who overstayed her visa some 12 years ago, handed staff a fake driver’s license. Then she waited. Borrego’s eldest daughter, who asked that her name not be published, says her mother was about to give up and leave when staff finally called her back into an examination room.
Minutes later, Borrego’s daughter saw Harris County Sheriff’s deputies march her mother out of the clinic. She says her 8-year-old sister started to cry when she saw the handcuffs.
“We’re going to take her downtown, she presented a form of false identification,” Borrego’s daughter recalled the deputy saying. He said their mother’s bond would probably be around $20,000, and added, “She’s going to get deported.”
Harris County District Clerk’s records show Borrego was charged with one felony count of tampering with a government record. Borrego’s attorney, Clarissa Guajardo, says the charge stems from the fake Social Security card deputies found in Borrego’s purse after she was arrested at her gynecologist’s office.
The nature of Borrego’s arrest is surprising. Memorial Hermann, the office’s parent group, told the Texas Observer this week that the staff didn’t know that Borrego was undocumented, and that if they had known, they wouldn’t have called the police, claiming that they don’t “report any undocumented patients to law enforcement.”
It’s certainly possible that they didn’t know that Borrego was undocumented—but it’s also clearly not true that they don’t report undocumented patients to law enforcement, since, whether they were aware of her immigration status or not, that’s what they did. That she was called into an exam room, only to be arrested by Harris County deputies, just adds an additional unsavory layer to this story.
As does the fact of doctors serving as law enforcement in cases of suspected ID tampering at all. Doctors, specifically, occupy a unique role—people need to see them, and they need to trust them. Only the cruelest among us would suggest that justice would be served if undocumented immigrants were to die from ovarian cysts or unexamined lumps in their breasts because they feared being reported to authorities by their doctors, and in fact, the law is designed to allow people to share information with their doctors without fear of reprisal—the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, prevents medical professionals from releasing patient information except under specific circumstances (a patient who informs a doctor that he or she intends to do harm to themselves or someone else, for example). Patients who suffer from health complications because they used illegal drugs can seek treatment without worrying that the things they tell their doctors will be used against them in a criminal case; patients who contract STD’s because they had an affair can discuss the situation with their doctors without having to fear that their doctor will testify in divorce proceedings; etc, etc.
Immigration is a contentious issue, with a lot of passionate viewpoints argued with great verve. There are valid and worthwhile conversations to have about that subject—but the chilling effect of medical professionals taking it upon themselves to serve as law enforcement is something that should give any of us pause.
Update 9/17: After this story was published, a representative for Memorial Hermann wrote Texas Monthly to clarify their side of the incident. “Ms. Borrego arrived at our clinic for routine care where she presented potentially false identification. For quality and safety reasons, our staff requests and verifies proper identification to ensure appropriate treatment,” Memorial Hermann’s Alex Loessin wrote, explaining that “when we refer to quality and safety, we are referring to patient quality and safety.” Loessin went on to explain that DPS was contacted “in an effort to verify the authenticity of the suspicious driver’s license,” and that “DPS instructed them to contact local law enforcement.” Loessin did not return a follow-up email asking for clarification on how calling law enforcement was in the interest of patient safety.