PHOENIX - Republican lawmakers want to widen Arizona's illegal immigration crackdown with a proposal to require hospitals to check on whether patients are in the country legally, causing outrage among medical professionals who fear becoming de facto immigration agents under the law.
The medical industry ripped the bill Monday as it was scheduled for a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Doctors envisioned scenarios in which immigrants with contagious diseases such as tuberculosis would stay home from the clinic or hospital and put themselves and the public at a grave health risk.
"This is making us into a police state that will try to catch people when they are sick," said George Pauk, a retired doctor with an organization called Physicians for a National Health Program. "Do we want to stop sick people from coming in for health care?"
Arizona is the first Legislature to take up such a measure amid a national push in conservative states to crack down on illegal immigration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Arizona lawmakers ignited the debate a year ago when they passed a bill that required local police, while enforcing other laws, to question the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally. A judge later put that provision on hold.
The discussion about the bill comes just days after an illegal immigrant in Texas with a banana-size tumor in her spine said she was ousted from her hospital because of her immigration status. She later found another hospital to get treatment.
Supporters say the hospital bill is necessary tool to fight illegal immigration at a time when hospitals lose tens of millions of dollars treating illegal immigrants in emergency rooms.
Senate President Russell Pearce, a Mesa Republican who was chief sponsor of last year's immigration law, says the hospitals bill is part of a broader effort to crack down on illegal immigration. The hospitals bill wouldn't bar people from getting care, but it would put the onus on hospitals to "do due diligence," Pearce said. "We're going to enforce our laws without apology."
Added Pearce: "It's the law. It's a felony to (aid and) abet. We're going to enforce the law without apology."
Other sponsors of the bill did not immediately return calls seeking comment. Discussion of the bill in the committee was put on hold late Monday until a later date.
The legislation, known as Senate Bill 1405, would require hospitals, when admitting non-emergency cases, to confirm that a person seeking care is a U.S. citizen or in the country legally.
In emergency cases where the patient isn't here legally, the hospital would be required to call immigration authorities after the treatment is done. Hospitals in non-emergency situations would also be required to contact federal immigration authorities, but they would have more apparent discretion about whether to treat illegal immigrants.
Opponents say the bill could pose serious health risks to those here legally and illegally. They believe the threat of deportation would keep some people from seeking health care for everything from emergency situations to measures such as vaccinations, potentially leading to preventable deaths. They also said it would increase hospitals' already-strained workload.
"You are now turning medical professionals into full-time INS agents," said Democratic state Sen. Steve Gallardo, speaking at a news conference Monday. "Doctors that should be working to help treat ill patients are now turning into ICE agents."
Nicole Russell is the mother of a 3-year-old daughter named Kira, and she could not envision what it would be like for a parent to decide whether or not to take their child to the hospital for fear of being reported to the authorities.
"I can't imagine putting the health care of my daughter in the hands of politicians," she said.