There have been a lot of stories in the news lately about immigration crackdowns. We’ve seen the pictures of parents torn from their children at the border. We’ve heard stories about U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) showing up at workplaces, arresting undocumented immigrants on the spot.

One issue you may not have heard about, however, is the risks immigrants—undocumented and legal alike—can face if they find themselves in critical health. In today’s post, we discuss the relatively unknown practice of medical repatriation.

What is medical repatriation?

When an emergency room receives a patient in critical condition, the law states the hospital must treat them until they stabilize—regardless of the patient’s income, insurance or immigration status. However, most patients who suffer a major health incident—a gunshot wound or stroke, for example—require ongoing care following stabilization to recover. This is where problems arise.

If a patient has no insurance—or insufficient insurance to cover their medical bills—the hospital must absorb the cost of care themselves. Hospital stays can cost upwards of $1,000 a day, so hospitals with uninsured patients look to discharge them as quickly as possible. If a patient is a foreign national, they may put them on a plane back to their home country, to receive continued treatment there. This process is called medical repatriation.

The problem

Patients do not always survive medical repatriation. In some cases, they may be too weak to survive the flight. In other cases, the home country may not have adequate medical facilities to treat the patient’s condition. Therefore, this practice is usually not in the best interest of the patient’s health.

From an immigration standpoint, medical repatriation creates serious problems. An undocumented immigrant who is sent back to their home country may not be able to re-enter the U.S.—and they could be separated from their family. Even legal residents are not immune. A green card holder who is applying for naturalization, for instance, must remain in the country for a fixed amount of time. If they are involuntarily moved to their home country, they could lose their residence status in the U.S.

What you can do

In this climate of increased anxiety surrounding immigration, it’s important to have your ducks in a row. Designate a trusted person as your power of attorney. This person can make medical decisions for you if you’re incapacitated. It’s also important to have an experienced immigration attorney on standby. If you encounter any issues that jeopardize your ability to stay in the U.S., you need to have knowledgeable counsel to advocate on your behalf.