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U.S. immigration agents have had a longstanding policy. Certain places are off-limits for arresting immigrants who are in this country illegally - no schools, no hospitals. NPR's John Burnett has broken the story of a family that was followed by agents to a children's hospital in South Texas. They were arrested while their infant son awaited emergency surgery. As John tells us, this situation and several others have many worried about a new normal under President Trump's immigration crackdown.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Isaac Sanchez at 2 months old was diagnosed with pyloric stenosis. This is a condition that causes vomiting, dehydration and weight loss in infants. It's curable with surgery, but no hospital in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas had a pediatric surgery team capable of performing the operation on his stomach. In order to cure Isaac, his parents, Oscar and Irma Sanchez, would need to take him to Driscoll Children's Hospital in Corpus Christi. It was just a couple of hours up the highway, but for them, it was a world away.
OSCAR SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: The trip would require passing a Border Patrol checkpoint, and the Sanchezes are undocumented. While they pondered their predicament in a Harlingen hospital, a Border Patrol agent showed up in the waiting room. Oscar Sanchez suspects a nurse turned them in. The agent said he could arrange for officers to escort the parents through the checkpoint to Corpus, but when they arrived, they would be arrested and put into deportation proceedings. So began a 48-hour odyssey that shows the lengths to which the Trump administration will go to round up people in the country illegally whether they have a criminal record or not. Here's how it went down.
O. SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: The Border Patrol followed the ambulance as it raced to Corpus through desolate ranch land, carrying Oscar, Irma and tiny Isaac with an IV in his arm and a tube in his stomach. Once they arrived at the hospital, the green-uniformed agents never left the undocumented couple's side. Officers followed the father to the bathroom and to the cafeteria and asked the mother to leave the door open when she breastfed Isaac.
O. SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: You feel vulnerable, Oscar says. We didn't know if they were going to let us stay with our son or not. Customs and Border Protection say they are required to monitor subjects in custody at all times.
On the morning of May 25, agents took Mr. and Mrs. Sanchez separately from the hospital to the Corpus Christi Border Patrol station to be fingerprinted and booked. They were permitted to return. Oscar Sanchez asked the surgeon if she could delay the operation until both parents could be in the waiting room. She agreed. The border patrol, in an email to NPR, says they made sure to leave one parent with the baby at all times and that agents played no role in the decision to postpone the operation. Driscoll Children's Hospital, citing patient privacy, declined to discuss the case.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY FUSSING)
BURNETT: On a recent Tuesday, Isaac sat on his mama's lap, all pudgy cheeks and wide eyes, wearing a top covered with little racecars. The family lives in a tidy, weathered frame house in North Brownsville.
IRMA SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "Thank the lord everything went well," Irma says. "He still throws up a little milk, but thank God he's fine."
The Corpus Christi hospital episode is the latest controversy over so-called sensitive locations. Under President Obama, Homeland Security adopted a policy that immigration agents should avoid enforcement actions at hospitals, schools, churches and public demonstrations unless there are special circumstances. Advocates are puzzled why the Border Patrol chose to put Oscar and Irma under such intense supervision which one would expect for higher-value targets like drug traffickers or MS-13 gang members. The couple has no criminal records. He works construction and landscaping. She stays home with their four children, all of whom are U.S. citizens.
LISA KOOP: I can't pretend to understand any reasoning that would have led anyone up the chain of command to think that Irma and Oscar were flight risks or dangers to the community or in any other way people who needed to be followed into a hospital in order to be placed in deportation proceedings.
BURNETT: Lisa Koop is a lawyer with the National Immigrant Justice Center. She'll be asking an immigration judge in December to let the Sanchez parents remain with their children in the U.S. Ana Hinojosa is an immigrant advocate with the Mennonite Central Committee in Brownsville, who's also working on the case.
ANA HINOJOSA: They're a family that's just here trying to make a living, provide an education and a future for their children.
BURNETT: Advocates are concerned that immigration enforcers under Trump are chipping away at places formerly considered safe zones. Three examples - immigration agents detained six men leaving a church homeless shelter in Virginia. They removed a woman with a brain tumor from a Texas hospital and put her back in detention. And they arrested a father after he dropped off his daughter at school in Los Angeles.
As with the Corpus hospital, the agency maintains none of the arrests was actually made inside the sensitive location. But several members of Congress - all Democrats - are troubled just the same. They've proposed the Protecting Sensitive Locations Act, which would codify protected places in federal law. And it would expand them to include courthouses and bus stops.
JOSE SERRANO: They're pushing the envelope to the point where they're trying to find out how far they can go.
BURNETT: Bronx Congressman Jose Serrano is one of the bill's authors. He's outraged by what happened in South Texas.
SERRANO: It violates human decency. You don't interrupt medical procedures.
BURNETT: Federal immigration agents say under this president, everyone who's in the country illegally is fair game. John Burnett, NPR News, Brownsville.
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