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The life-changing stakes involved in medical repatriation

With or without insurance, a serious and sudden health issue can be emotionally and financial devastating for both the patient and their family members. Trust is placed in doctors to create a treatment plan tailored to the patient’s specific needs. However, for those who are uninsured and undocumented, those strategies may involve a return to their home country.

Lucilo Molina was in the process of applying for a green card when he began to suffer severe chest pains in the summer of 2016. His wife Blanca called 911 and her husband was rushed to the hospital. Not long after his arrival, the Mexico native underwent major open-heart surgery.

Molina barely survived, but began to stabilize. Yet, he remained in a coma. In addition to the problems with his health, his citizenship status made him unable to secure health insurance to cover the significant health care costs. Without a green card and health insurance, hospital representatives recommended to Molina’s family that Lucilo be medically repatriated.

Medical repatriation, the practice of returning patients to their countries of origin, would transfer Molina to a long-term care facility in Mexico. However, it would also delay his green card process. Feeling pressured to make a decision when her husband could not, Lucilo’s wife went along with the hospital’s treatment plan.

Some advocates see the practice as defacto deportation. The hospital and individual or a designated family member makes the decision to return an undocumented individual. There is no federal intervention. ICE officials are encouraged to exercise prosecutorial discretion when patients need long-term acute care.

Data on those who have been removed from the country for medical reasons is largely unavailable, as hospitals do not report the repatriation. A 2012 study by Seton Hall University School of Law identified 800 cases in six years, though it is likely that the number may be higher.


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