Physician Warns That Arizona Immigration Law Could Turn Doctors Into Criminals

emergency careOver the past few weeks, medical organizations and health care providers have come out against Arizona’s new immigration law, citing the likelihood that it will discourage a large segment of the population from seeking health care. Recently, however, Lucas Restrepo, M.D., published a piece in the New England Journal of Medicine that provided a whole new angle on the effect SB-1070 will have on the medical profession. Restrepo points out that, under the law, health care providers who treat undocumented immigrants could be considered criminals:

The new Arizona state immigration bill (SB-1070) signed into law on April 23 will seriously obstruct, if not undermine, the practice of medicine in the state of Arizona. It specifies that those who “conceal, harbor or shield or attempt to conceal, harbor or shield” a foreign person who came to the United States illicitly “are guilty of a class 1 misdemeanor” punishable by a fine of at least $1,000 (Sec. 5, Section 13-2929). It can be argued that health care providers who neglect to report illegal immigrants under their care will violate the law and be considered criminals. […]

Asking patients to produce immigration documents violates the trust that physicians, nurses, and other health care workers endeavor to earn from them. This bill threatens one of the oldest traditions of medicine: physicians shall protect patients regardless of nationality or race. This legislation, if unchallenged, will force health care providers to choose between the dignity of their profession and the indignity of violating the law.

In his column, Restrepo notes the bill provides physicians (and police for that matter) with no criteria when it comes to what constitutes “reasonable grounds” to suspect that someone is undocumented. As a result, he worries that “health care providers in Arizona will need to ask for a passport before seeing certain patients (and providers themselves will need to carry their own passports at all times, depending on their physical appearance or accent).”

Studies have shown that, on average, immigrants are healthier than US citizensuse less medical careuse less expensive care, and do not impose a disproportionate financial burden on the U.S. health care system. However, accidents can happen to anyone and everyone gets sick at some point. Discouraging or denying treatment of undocumented immigrants in such incidents doesn’t just hurt them, it puts everyone at risk. According toexperts, health care access to any population could lead to a health crisis that affects everyone.

andreaWonk Room previously reported that Dr. Winston Wong — Medical Director of community benefit at Kaiser Permanente — has gone as far as to argue that doctors have a professional obligation to oppose any measure that endangers the care of their patients and the public’s general health, including SB-1070. Last month, medical organizations representing more than 156,000 health care providers released a statement blasting Arizona’s new immigration law, calling it “an affront to human rights and a devastating step backwards for the health and well being of the entire nation.”

Andrea Christina Nill

Reposted with permission from The Wonk Room.


  1. Scott Vejar says

    it looks like this will keep people from abusing our medical system,
    maybe the people who are illegal and need medical attention will enter illegally into another country, or maybe they will stay where they are.
    a lot of people complain that our tax dollars are not being used correctly, and then when someone tries to do something about it, those same people complain.
    its bad enough that U.S.citizens abuse our system.
    people enter into this country illegal and get benefits, and never contribute.
    is it okay for me to get free money? i DID contribute to the system.
    also, some countries are letting thier criminals out of prisons and send them here. then those criminals sneak into our country.

  2. Marshall says

    Just ask them which page and paragraph requires a medical person to ask about legal status? Just read the bill, it is much shorter than anything the house speaker has allowed to be passed.

  3. SK says

    Wrong Dusty. I’ve been in and out of Mexico lots of times, and I’ve seen doctors on both sides of the border. When I was exposed to various strains of bacteria in Mexico, I saw my doctor here in the US for it. When I carried a cold with me into Mexico, I saw a doctor there.

    Where the patient has been is relevant medical information. Information on whether or not they are a legal resident or a citizen or on a green card or whatever is simply not relevant to their medical care.

    “…under this law the medical provider would now be obligated to assure that I was legal…”

    Absolutely NOT TRUE, and clearly just a strawman argument. Doctors are NOT REQUIRED to determine immigration status under the AZ law. Nor are they expected to obtain that information. But whatever, the law can easily be amended to exclude doctors, just in case their patients offer information about their immigration status that the docs don’t even need to know about.

    In the end, the problems associated with illegal immigration, especially in border states, are just too great to ignore. The financial costs to taxpayers is staggering. That’s why we have laws like SB-1070, because the legal residents have had enough.

    While many want open borders and others want to just ignore the illegal alien problems, it’s simply not feasible to pay millions of dollars for our immigration service, then just ignore those people who refuse to abide by the rules and jump ahead of others.

  4. says

    SK, you seem to worry a lot about “illegal aliens” stealing our resources — exactly what experience do you have with thieving illegal aliens? Most immigrants, legal or illegal, work their butts off in our economy, pay their own costs, and often contribute more to the quality of our life than many of our fellow ‘mericans do. If you do have experience with thieving “illegal aliens” taking our resources are they mostly from Canada, Britain, or where? I remember reading how at other times of nativist surges in this country that people disparaged immigrants from Italy, Poland, Germany, etc as worthless, shiftless, thieves who came to America and then took advantage of us and didn’t even learn our language! Horrors.

    It is often the case that people project their own faults or desires on others and maybe people who have described thieving “illegal aliens” to you are just describing their own attributes and you ought to be wary of accepting their biases?

  5. says

    Of course SK has never been to see a doctor and doesn’t realize that in moving into the role of patient that an individual is asked many questions to establish a medical history. The medical history often asks where and when illness occurred, where treatment records might be found, and so forth. If all my prior information was in a foreign country then it might occur to a doctor, nurse or other provider that I am an “illegal immigrant” and under this law the medical provider would now be obligated to assure that I was legal, and if not to report me lest she/he commit a misdemeanor. Further, medical clinics in many areas of AZ, or California for that matter, are in neighborhoods where many immigrants, legal or illegal, as well as native born Americans who may be mistaken for foreign born persons will come in to seek medical care. This law would put the medical clinics in jeopardy if they did not seek to ascertain that all their patients have proper status — remember everyone is supposed to carry proof of citizenship in AZ, even you SK.

  6. SK says

    Lucas Restrepo “worries that “health care providers in Arizona will need to ask for a passport before seeing certain patients…”

    That’s silly, why would a doctor even ask if their patient is a legal immigrant? Why would a doctor ask for a passport for ANY patient? When you see your doctor, you discuss the medical problem and you get treatment. Whether or not you’re an immigrant, more specifically a legal or illegal immigrant is just not an issue.

    This is just another strawman argument against enforcing federal immigration law. But hey, no big deal, they can just amend the law to exclude doctors from prosecution, since the intent of the Arizona state immigration bill (SB-1070) is not to hurt illegal aliens but simply keep them from stealing our resources.


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