British Columbia

Undocumented immigrants who fear being deported need health care says advocate

Byron Cruz says many immigrants would rather die than be deported; which is why some are reluctant to get health care when they need it.

Byron Cruz connects Vancouver's undocumented immigrants with a network of health care providers

B.C. Children's Hospital. Because a hospital consultation in B.C. can cost $900, advocate Byron Cruz wants to see the children of undocumented immigrants get free health care. (Google Streetview)

Byron Cruz refers to his cell phone as 911 for undocumented immigrants.

Cruz is an outreach worker with migrants rights group Sanctuary City, and connects undocumented immigrants with the health care services they need.

Undocumented immigrants sometimes avoid mainstream health services because they fear being reported to border services.

He says some patients have said they would rather die than be deported.

"People have been deported [for accessing medical services]. How many, we don't know," Cruz told On The Coast host Stephen Quinn. "We know only from Fraser Health Authority more than 500 phone calls were made in a period of 21 months."

Cruz wants better protection for migrants seeking medical help, and is campaigning for policy changes to help his patients stay healthy — and stay in the country.

Cruz receives around 25 calls a week from undocumented immigrants too afraid to access health services.

Byron Cruz helps connect undocumented immigrants with health care professionals who won't report them to the CBSA. (CBC)

Finding them resources is what he calls his "daily headache," and he says he leans on a network of social workers and health care workers who will treat undocumented immigrants and not report them.

"We have physicians who will say, 'At the end of my shift at the clinic, I have a couple of hours where I can see someone there," said Cruz.

One time, he says, the only doctor who would help was off the clock and having coffee in Vancouver. He had to return a dislocated shoulder in the alley behind the cafe.

In another desperate situation, he was about to get a veterinarian to stitch a patient's wound, until a nurse practitioner stepped in at the last moment.

Cruz says although he's seen progress from Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health on not calling the CBSA, he is also concerned about the costs those without Canadian health coverage face — such as $900 for a hospital consultation — and wants the children of undocumented immigrants to get free health care.

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast

To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: Meet the man who secretly connects undocumented immigrants with health care