Imagine you are pregnant but cannot bring yourself to visit a doctor. That’s the situation that some undocumented immigrants in B.C. felt they were in five years ago, Byron Cruz, an organizer with the nonprofit Sanctuary Health, told the Straight in 2015.
“We were getting phone calls from pregnant women who don’t have access to hospitals to deliver their babies,” he said then.
The women were afraid to access the health-care system because there was evidence that hospitals were referring undocumented immigrants to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), the federal police force tasked with immigration enforcement and deportations. Statistics that Sanctuary Health had obtained from Fraser Health, which operates 12 hospitals throughout the Lower Mainland, showed that from January 2014 to October 2015, the care provider had referred approximately 500 patients to CBSA.
Following reports in the Straight, Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH)—the two largest health authorities in the province—granted meetings with Sanctuary Health. Officials subsequently said they would revise hospital policies to prohibit staff from contacting CBSA without a patient’s consent.
Now statistics the Straight obtained via a freedom-of-information request suggest those policy changes were mostly effective and remain in place today.
In 2016, Fraser Health and VCH together referred 18 patients to CBSA. Then eight in 2017, and then just seven last year.
Cruz said that for many undocumented immigrants living in Metro Vancouver, the dramatic decline in CBSA referrals has had a noticeable effect.
“It’s made a difference,” he said.
“People will call us,” Cruz continued. “There are so many phone calls that we get from people with precarious immigration status. They say, ‘Byron, is it safe to go [to the hospital]? Now we know that Fraser Health has improved and they are not reporting to immigration. And so we are able to tell people that and they are able to access services there.”
Cruz said B.C. Women’s Hospital in Vancouver is especially worthy of praise. “There are no fears of being reported to immigration and there are no fears of being rejected because of anyone’s economic status,” he said.
Cruz however added he still would like to see VCH’s CBSA-referral numbers decline further.
For the three years for which the Straight obtained data, VCH made 27 referrals that resulted in eight follow-up actions. Meanwhile, Fraser Health only made six referrals that resulted in just three follow-up actions.
While Cruz expressed gratitude for the changes, he said that undocumented immigrants still face risks elsewhere in the larger health-care system.
“The [referral] numbers are low, but we don’t have any control over what happens when someone goes to the hospital, is accepted into the hospital, and then they received a bill with thousands of dollars that they owe to the hospital,” he explained.
Treatment costs for patients with nonresident status are not covered by Canada’s public-health-care system, and so even the most-basic visit to an emergency room results in a bill for several thousand dollars.
“These bills go to collection agencies,” Cruz said. “Then people are getting phone calls from the collection agencies every week. And we don’t know what the privacy rules are for those agencies.”