© 2024 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

10-Year-Old Girl Is Detained By Border Patrol After Emergency Surgery

Updated at 8 p.m. ET

Immigrant advocates are protesting the Border Patrol's apprehension this week of a 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy in the country illegally, after she was operated on at a Texas hospital.

Federal immigration officers intercepted the child as she and an adult cousin, who is a U.S. citizen, were in an ambulance being transferred between two hospitals so that she could receive emergency gallbladder surgery.

Rosa Maria Hernandez was brought to the United States illegally from Mexico in 2007 when she was 3 months old, according to her mother, Felipa de la Cruz, to get access to better medical care. The family lives in Laredo, Texas, and all are undocumented.

The girl was traveling in an ambulance — accompanied by her cousin — to Driscoll Children's Hospital in Corpus Christi on Tuesday when federal immigration officers stopped the vehicle at a checkpoint.

The Border Patrol agents followed the ambulance to the hospital. According to the family's lawyer, Leticia Gonzalez, the agents insisted the door to her hospital room be left open at all times to keep an eye on her.

On Wednesday, the hospital discharged Rosa Maria. The lawyer, reading the discharge papers on a conference call with reporters, said doctors recommended the child be released to "a family member who is familiar with her medical and psychological needs."

But officers decided to transport the girl to a government-contracted juvenile shelter in San Antonio, 150 miles from Laredo, and put her into deportation proceedings.

The Border Patrol defends its actions at the checkpoint, the hospital and the youth shelter. Dan Hetlage, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, says throughout the two-day incident, agents were just enforcing federal immigration law.

"The agent is wrong if he lets her go. We don't have the discretion. It's not a traffic ticket. We follow the letter of the law," he said.

"It's frustrating for us," he continued, "I'm a human being. The agents are trying to do their job as humanely as possible."

The Border Patrol defends its agents, saying they escorted Rosa Maria to the children's hospital to ensure she received appropriate medical care and then processed her according to U.S. immigration laws.

Immigrant advocates are calling it the latest outrage under President Trump's aggressive immigration enforcement.

Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio condemned the agents' actions, saying they treated the sick girl like "a hardened convict" when she posed "no threat to national security. ... This apprehension occurred despite the fact that the sensitive locations policy is still in effect. And remember they were staked outside the hospital room."

Officers are discouraged from conducting enforcement actions at or near so-called sensitive locations unless the arrest is related to national security, terrorism or public safety. More than 100 Democrats in Congress have demanded that the Department of Homeland Security rein in immigration agents making an increasing number of arrests at or near hospitals, churches and schools.

The Border Patrol insists it apprehended Rosa Maria at the checkpoint, not the hospital, and the checkpoint is not considered a sensitive location.

Astrid Dominguez, of the ACLU of Texas, says, "Rosa Maria shouldn't spend one more day away from her parents. We are outraged that the Trump administration and Border Patrol would go after a child like Rosa Maria."

In an open letter addressed to the Department of Homeland Security's acting secretary, Elaine Duke, the advocacy group DreamActivist says Rosa Maria was told "she has two options; sign voluntary departure or spend up to 3 weeks in detention."

"Families should not have to decide between getting life saving help, or being deported," the group said in the letter.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
Journalism at this station is made possible by donors who value local reporting. Donate today to keep stories like this one coming. It is thanks to your generosity that we can keep this content free and accessible for everyone. Thanks!