Trailblazers 2019: Sanctuary Health's Byron Cruz helps undocumented immigrants access medical treatment

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      Byron Cruz often receives the sort of phone call that requires a steady hand.

      “My number works as a 911 number for undocumented people,” he told the Straight in 2015. “We never announced our services, but my number has been given to people as the number they can call. That is very scary. 911 is for emergencies.”

      As the founder of Sanctuary Health, Cruz helps undocumented immigrants living in Metro Vancouver connect with health-care services that they can access without fear of deportation.

      Established as a grassroots group of community activists in 2011, the work has left Cruz with no shortage of harrowing stories.

      One of the most common questions he receives is where pregnant women should go to deliver their babies. Agricultural workers are another group who often call for help. Once Cruz referred an injured construction worker to a veterinarian who was willing to provide the man with stitches.

      In 2016, undocumented immigrants’ access to health care improved considerably across Metro Vancouver, thanks in large part to Cruz and Sanctuary Health.

      Using freedom-of-information legislation, the organization obtained statistics from the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) that detailed the scale of this problem. They learned that during about the preceding two years, the Fraser Health Authority’s 12 hospitals throughout the Lower Mainland had referred approximately 500 patients to CBSA, resulting in an unknown number of deportations.

      Cruz took that information to Fraser Health and other health authorities that operate in B.C. and requested they implement “access without fear” policies that would prohibit staff from referring undocumented patients to immigration authorities. To his surprise, they agreed. In May 2019, the Straight reported that updated CBSA statistics show the referrals have indeed ceased.

      Interviewed recently, Cruz said his old mobile number still receives a lot of calls from undocumented families who don’t know where to turn for health care. But these days he seldom has to send anyone to a veterinarian.

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