In June of 2018, many Americans awoke to the horror their country was inflicting on thousands of asylum seekers and their children. Mothers ripped from their babies, penned in cages, frozen in what was called la hieleras, “the freezer,” which are rooms where air conditioning blasts non-stop at painful temperatures. Over-crowded and deprived of drinking water, immigrants resorted to drinking from toilets to quench their thirst.
In Houston, an emergency meeting, comprised of non-profit organizations and immigration attorneys, was called to discuss what their group stance would be and how they could align their messages to stop the family separation. As the only non-industry person, I suggested this complex, behemoth of a humanitarian crisis needed to be addressed in a multi-pronged approach, pulling in as many stakeholders as possible to strategically push together. Leveraging each industry’s reach, attorneys, doctors, and non-profits would send a powerful message to the administration locally and nationally. Disappointed the group did not consider my ambitious proposal, a good friend advised me to “stop asking for permission.” This pivotal moment changed everything.
As a mom, I knew it was time to seize upon the opportunity on behalf of other mothers. Personally, I had stepped through the sliding glass door, out of a project management career and into the world of a stay at home mom. I was ready to sink my teeth into something incredibly meaningful and I could no longer watch this Administration damage thousands of asylum seekers in my country’s name.
Creating Healthcare Professionals Advocating for Immigrant Children (HPAIC) was the first initiative. We had a few well-attended meetings, creating buy-in and alignment amongst area doctors. Quickly, we realized the doctors felt they could not openly advocate, due to contractual issues with their respective institutions, and traction was lost. In that same moment, another avenue to help families opened up.
Simultaneously in New York, a group of parents were bonding immigrant moms out of prison. In the beginning of July, I was asked for logistics assistance in the South. I, along with my co-founder, Allyson Vaughn, worked together to maneuver many mothers from an Arizona immigrant prison to various points East, and back to their children. Like-minded moms, coming together in a traditional carpool style, with translators on the phone and safe houses to stay the night. We were not waiting for permission, we were making it happen, and we were successful.
At this time there were no reunification orders, families continued to be torn apart daily as a point of pain to deter people from seeking shelter in the United States. There was no end in sight.
AYUDA FAMILIAS CREATION
Through the fall and winter, as we continued our reunification work, we no longer engaged only clinicians but attorneys as well, and we wanted our name to reflect this—AYUDA FAMILIAS. This allowed us to continue our advocacy by merging our growing capabilities with our past philosophy as a Medical Legal Partnership (MLP).
We worked where we could, and the location that allowed for the greatest opportun ity at that moment was assisting immigrants as they moved through the Greyhound Bus system. Immigrants were released from prisons and reunified with their children with no money for food, no diapers, and no formula. We initiated negotiations with Greyhound Corporate to allow our volunteers to work in their stations. Ultimately, this effort was wholly unsuccessful, and to this day, Greyhound’s corporate policy has been upheld as inhumane and another unnecessary hardship immigrants must endure.
Through our clinician affiliations, we became more aware of a new trend. Medically-fragile immigrants were not receiving healthcare while incarcerated and their stories started to surface. These stories continue to this day.
Research revealed federal prisoners, immigrant and otherwise, do not have a right to informed medical consent, and their prisons do not practice HIPAA compliance. Meaning, they do not have bodily autonomy, can be operated on without their consent, nor do they have to be spoken to in a language they understand. The current federal guidelines requiring informed consent in prison only cover: plastic surgery, prison rape, and medical research subjects.
A woman with a ruptured c-section incision needed immediate medical intervention and advocacy. Even though she lacked legal or medical assistance, this mom should have been reunified with her son months earlier, per the Administration's own rules. Instead she was scheduled for deportation. Her open wound - only treated topically - meant she was in constant pain since advil simply can’t resolve an abdominal hernia rupture. ICE refused to treat her despite their own doctor’s recommendation that surgery was necessary. ICE told her they wouldn’t have the surgery done because they “were going to deport [her].”
Once we began advocating for release of information on our client, she was operated on in a matter of days, despite her attorney’s request that an independent doctor evaluate her. AYUDA FAMILIAS facilitated the medical research, procured her attorney, retrieval and reunification with her son, post-release.
AYUDA FAMILIAS continues our work as we deliver “justice through medical care.” Our passion is for advocating for medically-fragile immigrant families who suffer in prison, completing reunifications monthly, and partnering with like-minded individuals and organizations who are determined to not ask for permission.