One year after being forcefully discharged from a Chicago hospital and deported to Mexico because he could not afford his medical bill, an undocumented worker who became a quadriplegic from a work-related accident has died from a heart attack due to complications from his injuries. The man's family claims his death could have been prevented if he was allowed to receive adequate medical care in the United States.
Quelino Ojeda Jimenez, 24 at the time of his death, fell from a roof while employed with a subcontractor of Imperial Roofing in Aug. 2010. After being taken to the Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill., Jimenez received care for four months. During this time, he was not able to speak, eat, or breathe, the Chicago Tribune reported in Feb. 2011.
Four months of intensive care for a quadriplegic ran up a large bill of about $650,000. Jimenez, in the country illegally and working as an undocumented laborer without any form of health insurance, could not afford to pay the bill – so the hospital chose to evict him and arranged for him to be sent to a hospital in Mexico without his consent.
Advocate Christ Medical Center claims it was the only available option once officials realized Jimenez needed a lifetime of care and several private long-term care facilities refused to accept him in as a patient, according to hospital officials.
However, the hospital's actions angered many in Chicago's Mexican community, who claim Jimenez's rights were violated because the legality of a hospital's authority to deport a patient through a medical repatriation without the patient's consent is not clear, nor ethical.
“All his rights were trampled upon,” said Carlos Arango, a member of the United Front for Immigrants in Chicago, according to Fox News Latino.
"They threw him out like he was a piece of garbage," said Horacio Esparza, a disability rights advocate who runs the Progress Center for Independent Living in Forest Park, according to the Tribune.
After being deported to Oaxaca, it was reported by the Tribune that Jimenez was placed in a one-story concrete hospital in a small town in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. However, according to Jimenez in an interview in 2011, the hospital was not capable of treating him.
"I didn't want to come back [to Oaxaca]… because here there's no medicine … I need therapy, I need a lot of things and they don't have," he said.
The number of medical repatriations of undocumented immigrants is not known because no government agency keeps track of them, but various accounts estimate the number to be around 300 annually. However, not all of these are forced or as serious as Jimenez's case. Whatever the numbers are, for undocumented immigrants in need of expensive, urgent care, medical repatriation can be fatal.
"Repatriation is pretty much a death sentence in some of these cases," said Dr. Steven Larson, an expert on migrant health and an emergency room physician at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, according to the New York Times. "I’ve seen patients bundled onto the plane and out of the country, and once that person is out of sight, he’s out of mind."
Nonetheless, without hospitals willing to take on the costs of caring for a person who is unable to pay their bills, the only other option is to put patients in acute-care hospitals, which poses other problems.
"What that does for us, it puts a strain on our system, where we’re unable to provide adequate care for our own citizens," said Alan B. Kelly, vice president of Scottsdale Healthcare in Arizona. "A full bed is a full bed."
The reader reaction to Jimenez's deportation last year was just as polarized as the public debate on immigration; while some people argued for compassion for those who come to the U.S. in search of better lives than they had back home, many others argued that undocumented immigrants have broken the law and do not deserve compassion if it costs American taxpayer dollars.
One commenter wrote: "Would it have been cheaper just to pull the plug than to fly him back to Mexico? So nice we absorb the expense of his crime of coming to America illegally."
Another commenter added: "I feel sorry for him but he was here illegally and had no insurance. He needed to go back. I pay for my health care and in my taxes I pay for my fellow Americans who can't. He should have come here the legal way. He wanted to stay here until he recovered? That would most likely be the rest of his life. He needs to stay in his country. For all you bleeding hearts out there saying he should have stayed YOU PAY FOR HIS CARE OUT OF YOUR OWN POCKET stay out of mine."
Mónica Novoa, a campaigner for Drop the i-Word, a group that campaigns against using the word "illegal" to describe undocumented immigrants because members find it equivalent to a racist slur, wrote that the vitriolic statements by many readers have been instigated by the belief that people can be "illegal."
"The 'illegal immigrant' label immediately blocks a richer conversation and is too often used as an excuse to absolve the decision makers, policies and systems that impact human life of any accountability," Novoa wrote.
She added: "Until we start putting human beings at the center of all of our policy making, our values and our regard for human life will continue to erode. The main argument against the i-word is that people have broken laws, but if our laws are inhumane and untenable, they are not valid reference points."
Another commenter thought a biblical response was appropriate, and quoted Luke 10:25-37, in which Jesus discusses the "Good Samaritan" parable on neighborly compassion.