According to The National Immigration Justice Center, deportation of illegal immigrants often leads to the separation of family members. Lehigh Valley resident Junior Rivas and his children nearly experienced this when the Lehigh Valley Hospital attempted to illegally deport an undocumented patient.
This undocumented patient, identified as S.C., is in a medically-induced coma at the Lehigh Valley Health Center – Cedar Crest after being admitted at the end of last year to treat an aneurysm.
The hospital performed an operation that resulted in complications, leading to her current condition.
Two months after his wife’s complications, Rivas was given options to pay for private equipment, find another facility or consent for her removal. He had 48 hours to decide.
During those two days, protests from multiple immigration advocacy groups erupted in front of the hospital, which resulted in the hospital providing more time for the husband to make a decision. So far, no deportation papers have been signed.
Hospitals do not have legal authority to carry out deportations, and S.C. remains at the medical center.
According to the Free Immigration Project, hospitals within the U.S. use private flights to deport immigrants, but the result often ends in fatality, as most patients are sent to countries with sub-par medical care.
S.C. would have been sent to receive medical care in the Dominican Republic, where, according to countryreports.org, outside of major population centers, the quality of medical care varies greatly.
Northampton County and the Lehigh Valley have a relatively large immigrant population compared to other Pennsylvania counties. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 7.9% of residents in Northampton County are immigrants.
“There isn’t an exact number (of undocumented immigrants),” local immigration attorney Raymond Lahoud said. “I can tell you that Pennsylvania has several million. They won’t even encapsulate it, but it has been increasing in the Lehigh Valley within the county.”
According to data presented by Syracuse University, 196 undocumented immigrants have been detained over the past several years in Northampton county alone.
Jim Martin, Lehigh County’s district attorney, said his office focuses on community outreach, such as in schools. His position includes developing a trusting relationship with not only the immigrant community, but the entire community.
When the office learns information regarding illegal immigration, it informs the Department of Homeland Security.
“It is not a county or state function,” Martin said. “It’s a federal function.”
He said Congress does not have jurisdiction, the executive branch does.
Most immigration laws come through executive orders, which means they fluctuate based on the political opinions of the current president.
“Every time that we have a president, laws change frequently and easily: that’s the problem,” local immigration attorney Mahsa Mohkamkar said. “I think immigration must be separated from the executive branch.”
Mohkamkar said one of the biggest challenges in the immigration process is working with law enforcement agencies. Many of Mohkamkar’s clients are victims of human trafficking and are required to complete specific documentation to obtain permanent residency in the U.S.
She said effective communication and cooperation between law enforcement and immigration authorities are crucial for an efficient process. Inadequately trained law enforcement personnel can create obstacles for victims of human trafficking.
She said the police often provide asylum instead of permanent residency, which can take up to 13 years to process.
“The government has to find a way for them (immigrants) to permanently live here,” Mohkamkar said. “This would recognize their need for protection while reducing bureaucratic burdens on both immigrants and the government.”
Lahoud said he agrees the U.S. government’s system has many faults.
“We’ve got to do something,” Lahoud said. “You can’t just pick up 30-40 million people and just deport them all from the United States.”
He said there are some laws and programs in place that protect immigrants in the U.S. As one example, there is an executive order that allows 30,000 people from Nicaragua and Haiti to come to the U.S. legally every year.
On March 2, 2020, Northampton County issued Executive Order 20-28, which banned Immigration and Customs Enforcement from arresting illegal immigrants who are going through legal processing for a separate crime.
“Executive Order 20-28 balances the legitimate needs of the federal government to enforce our national immigration laws while providing the basic protections of due process that all human beings are owed in the United States,” Northampton County executive Lamount McClure said in an official press release.
Lahoud said the complexity of immigration, specifically in Pennsylvania, stems from the number of war refugees coming into the area, who provide a significant amount of blue-collar labor.
He said they make up a large part of the Pennsylvania economy even though they are undocumented.
“We have to recognize that we have to accept refugees to a certain extent,” Lahoud said in regards to the U.S. economy. “But, I think we’re also presented with the fact it can’t be unlimited.”