Federal Immigration Agents Target 10-Year-Old Girl Straight Out of Surgery

Updated | Federal immigration agents detained an undocumented 10-year-old girl from Laredo, Texas, just out of emergency surgery on Wednesday.

Rosa Maria Hernandez, brought illegally into the United States at three months of age by her mother, was taken to Driscoll Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas, by her cousin. En route to the hospital, they were stopped at a Customs and Border Patrol checkpoint. Immigration agents then proceeded to follow the two to the hospital and remained there throughout the night.

Once she was discharged, Rosa Maria, who suffers from cerebral palsy, was escorted via ambulance to the Bexar County Juvenile Detention Center in San Antonio, Texas, by officers with Customs and Border Protection.

In a statement, the agency said it "is committed to enforcing the immigration laws of this nation," which include detaining undocumented immigrants.

"Due to the juvenile’s medical condition, Border Patrol agents escorted her and her cousin to a Corpus Christi hospital where she could  receive appropriate medical care," the statement continued.

"Per the immigration laws of the United States, once medically cleared she will be processed accordingly," the statement concluded.

That process was expected to begin Thursday with a hearing to ultimately determine what will happen to Rosa Maria, who has brought to the United States without proper authorization by her mother when she was three months old.

Rosa Maria’s story highlights the newfound relentlessness in immigration arrests and detentions. Schools, churches, courthouses and hospitals—once “safe zones” from immigrant detention—are now open to arrests.

“This wouldn’t have happened during the [Barack] Obama administration,” one of Rosa Maria’s lawyers, Alex Galvez, told Newsweek. “This current administration wants to send a clear message to all undocumented immigrants—that if you want to go to [a] hospital, you better think twice about it because you might be deported.”

For years, Hernandez and her mother have lived in Laredo, Texas, a small city of 250,000 residents on the U.S.-Mexico border. Rosa Maria suffered from gallstones and was in need of emergency surgery. Doctors in Laredo informed her mother, Felipa De La Cruz, who is also undocumented, that the nearest children’s hospital capable of doing the operation was in Corpus Christi, a port city two and half hours away by car.

That presented a problem for De La Cruz: She would have to drive through a Border Patrol checkpoint near Freer, Texas. Instead of taking the risk of being detained and delaying her daughter’s operation, De La Cruz asked one of Rosa Maria’s cousins, Aurora Cantu, to take her instead. Rosa Maria’s doctors in Laredo gave Cantu a notarized letter to present at the checkpoint notifying the officers that she was transporting an undocumented person to receive emergency medical services.

When she arrived at the checkpoint, Border Patrol officers informed her that she was allowed to drive her cousin to the hospital, but they also told her that two agents would be driving right behind them straight to Corpus Christi.

After the operation was complete, Rosa Maria was taken to a hospital room where the two Border Patrol officers who followed them there stood waiting. That same night, Leticia Gonzalez, an immigration attorney from San Antonio, was informed about Rosa Maria’s case and rushed over to Driscoll.

By the time the lawyer arrived, there were five armed and fully uniformed Border Patrol agents waiting outside Rosa Maria's door, she said, adding that hospital staff did not allow her to go into Rosa Maria's room. She then threatened the agents and the hospital staff that she would go on one of the city’s popular Spanish radio stations and tell the public that she wasn’t allowed to see her client. The hospital and the agents obliged.

Newsweek contacted Driscoll Children’s Hospital, but officials refused to discuss the hospital’s policy regarding immigration agents on the premises. They also did not confirm Hernandez’s account due to privacy laws with respect to their patients. The hospital was embroiled in controversy in September when NPR reported that the undocumented parents of a two-month-old infant receiving treatment were detained by immigration officials upon arrival in May.

As her attorney, Gonzalez was informed by the agents that they were taking Rosa Maria to a detention center in Houston. Then, about an hour later, the agents told her that the 10-year-old would instead be taken by an ambulance to a detention center in San Antonio later Wednesday afternoon. Gonzalez petitioned the agents to allow Rosa Maria to be discharged from the custody of her grandfather, a U.S. permanent resident, who was on his way to the hospital from Laredo. They refused.

As the time approached for Rosa Maria’s removal, Gonzalez was shocked to see that an immigration officer was preparing to ride in the back of the ambulance with Rosa Maria and her cousin. Gonzalez successfully petitioned that the officer instead ride in the front.

“This 10-year-old child has cerebral palsy—she has the mental capacity closer to a 5- or 6-year old,” she said. “What good does it do to have an armed immigration officer riding with her in the back of an ambulance?”

According to Galvez, who is based in Los Angeles, California, the Department of Homeland Security will now determine whether or not it's best to allow Rosa Maria to go back home to her mother. The process usually takes longer than two months, but Galvez has been assured by Homeland Security that they will expedite the process given the circumstances.

"They told me we should expect to hear back in about two to three weeks," he said.

In the meantime, Rosa Maria will live at the Bexar County Juvenile Detention Center, where visitors are allowed to come and check up on her—only if said visitors are U.S. citizens.

"As we were taking out of the hospital, [Rosa Maria] looked visibly shaken," Gonzalez said. "The only thing this child wants is her mom."

For her part, De La Cruz is glad is doing well—Hernandez told Newsweek that Rosa Maria was released in stable condition—but worries about what awaits her at Bexar.

"I've always been at her side, and now that she needs me I'm not," she told Telemundo on Wednesday. "I have no idea how they're going to treat her. I'm scared."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified which Homeland Security agency was involved in the case. It was the Customs and Border Protection, not Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The story was also updated to include a comment from Customs and Border Protection on Thursday afternoon. Also, an earlier version misidentified the name of Rosa Maria's lawyer. Her name is Leticia Gonzalez.

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