Struggling for their lives

August 20, 2013

Orlando Sepúlveda reports from Chicago on a struggle led by immigrants whose loved ones are being denied a place on transplant lists at local hospitals.

IMMIGRANT RIGHTS activists in Chicago held a memorial march, followed by a daylong occupation outside Northwestern Memorial Hospital following the death of Sarai Rodriguez, a 25-year-old undocumented woman who was in critical need of a liver transplant, but had been denied by the hospital last March, according to her mother, because she was uninsured and couldn't afford the procedure.

Rodriguez's death was a terrible reminder of the high stakes in an ongoing struggle against the inhumane and discriminatory practices of the health care industry in Chicago.

On July 29, 14 people began a hunger strike at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Anglican Catholic Church in Little Village, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Chicago, to call attention to the fact that Chicago hospitals have refused to put them or their loved ones on the organ transplant list, because they don't have insurance or immigration documents. Among the hospitals activists are pressuring are Northwestern, University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center, Rush University Medical Center and Advocate Christ Medical Center.

Some of the hunger strikers at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Anglican Catholic Church
Some of the hunger strikers at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Anglican Catholic Church (Orlando Sepúlveda | SW)

The hunger strikers ended their fast, declaring victory after representatives of Northwestern and Advocate Christ met with the group and promised that undocumented patients would not be disqualified from organ transplants because of their immigration status. However, the hospitals still insist that they must take into account insurance status and ability to pay before scheduling procedures.

The unnecessary death of a 25-year-old woman was stark evidence that the struggle is not over by any means. Father José Landaverde, an organizer of the hunger strike and pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, said Northwestern is responsible for Rodriguez's death. "We know the hospitals have started negotiations," he said, "but so far all we have is vague promises, nothing in writing, no guarantees, no policy changes. Meanwhile, our people are dying. Hospital administrators and politicians bury us in false promises and bureaucracy, and they expect us to die quietly."

CARMEN GARCÍA was one of the hunger strikers. She was fasting for her son, who needs a kidney transplant. "Even when my son gets very sick, the hospitals refuse to treat him, and they send him home," she said. "My son has no medical insurance, no social worker, no doctor. The dialysis is the only thing he has."

Oliva Baca, the mother of one of the patients on hunger strike, put the political issues in no uncertain terms. "How can they value a piece of paper over the life of my daughter?" she asked. "For the sake of a piece of paper, they're going to let many people die, because it's not just my daughter. There are many sick people who are undocumented." Her daughter Blanca added: "It's unjust that they're letting us die for lack of papers."

Like Carmen García's son, Blanca Gómez also needs a kidney transplant. "They don't want to treat us because we don't have immigration documents," said the 23 year old. "I want to live for my daughter; she's two years old. I want a second chance at life."

Blanca applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an intiative ordered by Barack Obama after young DREAM activists put pressure on the government to act. The program grants a degree of regularization to the immigration status of children brought to the U.S. with their parents when they were very young.

But Blanca doesn't see much of a future in her situation, even if Congress acts on the proposal for immigration legislation now under consideration. "I don't know if they will pass immigration reform," she says, "or if it's going to include the issue of health care, because in the process of deferred action, they didn't include it." She adds: "If there is a legalization, I hope it's not only about allowing people to work, but rather gives everyone the full rights of citizens. My social security number is marked and it says that it's only good for work."

In fact, in the "bipartisan" Senate immigration proposal, known as S. 744, denies basic social services to immigrants who attempt to follow the twisted "path to citizenship" that would be put in place--on the condition of sharply increased border control measures. This is one of the concessions Democrats made to Republicans and the racists of the far right--a pattern familiar from Obama's health care law, which likewise doesn't permit non-citizens to obtain subsidies for purchasing health insurance.

WITH OR without immigration reform, conditions for the families participating in the struggle in Chicago will be equally hard.

María Garnica participated in the hunger strike on behalf of her husband, who suffers from kidney failure. She lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., with her six children while her husband works and gets his dialysis in Chicago. "It's not fair that my children don't get to be with their father due to lack of medical attention," she said. "They say that the United States is fighting for human rights, so what about the right of all the ill and those who need medical help?"

As for Blanca, her family is enduring another crisis. Her aunt, Rosa Gómez, described how another of her nieces, 21-year-old Alexis Gómez, "got a kidney transplant four years ago, but now her body is rejecting it, and we aren't sure what to do because when my niece got her transplant, she was a minor and was covered by the children's medical card of the state of Illinois. But now that she's an adult, we don't know what's going to happen. And in my family, there are donors--for Alexis and for Blanca."

The families have tried contacting the media and knocked on many doors to get help. María Gálvez, on hunger strike for her son Gustavo Gálvez, said the families have been "doing fund drives, dances and dinners to collect the money our son needs, but it's not enough. They asked for a quarter of a million dollars up front to do a transplant."

After the hunger strike was launched at the end of July, activists worked on building pressure on the hospitals.

On July 31, after marching from Little Village--with the chant "Health care is a human right, not just for the rich and white!" ringing out--hunger strikers and their supporters arrived at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center to demand that the institution explain to the community why it is refusing to treat undocumented patients. A few days later, the action moved to Northwestern, and Advocate Christ after that.

These protests got representatives of the hospitals to meet with the protesters, but the struggle will have to go on. According to Father Landaverde:

In the last three years, we've received many people at our church who need help with health care problems. Last year, we had a 21-day strike, after which we reached an agreement with some hospitals that they would treat our people, including those who didn't have immigration documents, but now they're breaking that agreement.

One hospital even dared to offer us help so that one patient would deport herself back to Mexico. This is a sin. They can't put money ahead of the lives of people. What we need is a fundamental change in what health care is in the United States, because these people who need transplants do not qualify for Obamacare.

An earlier version of this article was published in Spanish at Translation by Brian Chidester.

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