Undocumented Immigrants and Health Care: A Hard Choice for a Wife and Mother

Norma Angelica, who asked that her face not be shown, and her daughter Nicole - Photo: Valeria Fernández.

Norma Angelica, who asked that her face not be shown, and her daughter Nicole. (Photo: Valeria Fernández)

PHOENIX, Arizona — Living as an undocumented immigrant in Arizona sometimes means making difficult choices.

Norma Angelica, an undocumented migrant who asked that her last name be withheld, knows this firsthand. She faces one of those life-changing decisions – should she stay in Arizona, where her four children were born, or should she go back to Mexico and care for her ailing husband?

Tragedy struck Norma’s family at a vulnerable time.

It began when her husband Martin, 43, had a stroke. He had suffered from high blood pressure all his life, but lately he’d been working more as a landscaper, trying to save money. He was sick with the flu, and one day Norma found him on the floor, paralyzed.

On January 5, Martin was admitted to the Maricopa Medical Center, one of the public hospitals that care for uninsured and low-income residents in central Phoenix.

“They told me the worst: that he could die, or he could stay in a vegetative state,” said Norma, also 43. “They told me to prepare myself.”

But Martin stabilized and regained consciousness. That’s when his wife found out that the hospital could no longer care for him. They told her arrangements would have to be made to send him back to his native Mexico.

“Because he doesn’t have documents and he’s not a citizen, they can’t treat him here,” she said. “Mexico has to take care for him, I’ve been told, because he’s from Mexico.”

Norma is also worried about Martin Jr., their 7-year-old son, who suffers from a birth defect known as spina bifida. It’s a type of neural tube defect that affects the brain and spine, causing paralysis and learning disabilities. Martin Jr. needs constant care and weekly visits to a variety of medical experts including neurologists and orthopedists.

“I feel desperate, in part for him and in part for my son. I don’t want my husband to have to go to Mexico. And I don’t want to bring my son to Mexico,” she said.

Norma and Martin are not legally married, but she considers herself his wife after eight years of living together. They have four children together, all of them born in the U.S.; the oldest is 11, the youngest is a three month old infant.

Social workers at Maricopa Medical Center are working with the family to find alternatives, said spokesman Michael Murphy.

“It’s a very difficult and painful situation,” said Murphy. “We are trying to work on a solution with her.”

Murphy said that Martin will need long term care 24/7 and the hospital is not set up for that type of care. Also, because he doesn’t qualify for health insurance, it’s hard to find a facility that would admit him, he added.

“It’s expensive care, that’s why it’s such a difficult, awful situation,” Murphy said. Sending him back to a hospital in Mexico is one of the options they are contemplating, he acknowledged. But he didn’t know how soon they’ll come to a decision.

The type of treatment that Martin needs is expensive. Norma said that the artificial breathing equipment alone could cost up to $800 per day and requires a $20,000 deposit to rent it. There could be other expenses: for example, if her husband needs to be taken to the emergency room again. These would be difficult costs for her to bear since she has practically no savings.

As the hospital looks for alternatives, Norma weighs her options. When she met with authorities at the Mexican Consulate in Phoenix, they told her the choices are limited. They suggested that the best one would be work with the hospital to arrange Martin’s transfer to a medical facility closer to his relatives in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Martin’s case is not uncommon. When an undocumented immigrant needs emergency care, hospitals in Arizona provide it because it is required under federal law.

But because undocumented immigrants don’t qualify for the state’s subsidized insurance and many employers don’t provide health coverage, the only alternative is to get help from a charity or pay for treatment in a long-term facility.

Hospitals like the Maricopa Medical Center often make arrangements for the patient to be sent to his or her country of origin.

At times, Norma thinks that going to Mexico may be the answer. But her thoughts go back to her son Martin Jr.

“It’s going to be very expensive for me to take care of my child if I go to Mexico,” she said. “What if I have to take him to the emergency room?”

She wishes she could talk to her husband about these things, that she could consult with him at such a difficult time.

He was afraid for a long time that if he were to get sick he might get deported, she said. He feared the laws passed against undocumented immigrants in Arizona and the presence of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose deputies arrest undocumented immigrants.

He was especially concerned about a new law that took effect in November. The bill requires states employees to report undocumented immigrants that request public benefits, but it doesn’t apply to emergency services.

“U.S. politics are to blame for this. Because they’re really putting a lot of roadblocks on us,” she said. “If you are not a citizen you can’t do this and that. If you don’t have documents you can’t come out into the light.”

She’s been working all her life, and paying taxes she can’t claim, she said. She came from the Mexican state of Guerrero in 1977.

“I’ve never asked for anyone to give me anything for free,” Norma said.

Martin is awake now and he communicates with his wife through hand gestures.

“I don’t want to tell him what’s happening,” she said. She has also been at a loss of words to explain it to their children.

A week ago she asked him if he would like to go back to Mexico and he said yes.

Just a few days ago she asked again. And the answer was no.

“I want him to stay here. I wish someone would help me so he’ll stay here. It’s for my children, for nothing else but them. They’re the ones that will suffer,” she said. “It’s very sad for me because I wish we could all stay together.”

AboutValeria Fernández
Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist from Uruguay with more than a 14 years experience as a bilingual documentary producer and reporter on Arizona’s immigrant community and the US-Mexico borderlands. She co-directed and produced "Two Americans,” a documentary that parallels the stories of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and a 9-year-old U.S. citizen whose parents were arrested by the sheriff’s deputies that aired in Al Jazeera America. Her work as reporter for the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting on the economic and social impacts of a mine spill in Northern Mexico broadcast in PBS, San Diego and won an Arizona Press Club recognition for environmental reporting in 2016. She freelances for a number of print, digital and broadcast media outlets, including Feet in 2 Worlds, CNN Español, Radio Bilingue, PRI's Global Nation, Al Jazeera, and Discovery Spanish.