Cook County Health to immigrants: ‘You are welcome here’

By Kevin Beese For Chronicle Media

Dr. John Jay Shannon (center), chief executive officer of the Cook County Health and Hospital Systems, talks to the members of the CCHHS Board about steps to ensure undocumented immigrants know the county is a safe place for health care. (Photo by Kevin Beese/for Chronicle Media)

Cook County health officials are working to calm worried undocumented immigrants, fearful that obtaining medical treatment could lead to deportation.

Terry Mason, chief operating officer of the Cook County Health and Hospitals System, said that there has been a “significant drop” in attendance at the county’s Women, Infant and Children clinics, most in heavily Hispanic areas, since President Donald Trump took office.

County health officials pin that drop to Trump’s crackdown on undocumented individuals and fears within the undocumented community that getting services through the Cook County Health System are tied to Cook County and that that could lead to information about them funneling to the federal government.

Dr. John Jay Shannon, chief executive officer for the Health System, said that the department’s general counsel is reviewing information used to train staff to ensure that it is thorough and clear so that employees know what to do in the wake of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents showing up at a county health facility.

“They are examining our information on policies and procedures as it relates to taking care of individuals who come to us,” Shannon said.

Especially for staffers at outlying facilities, knowing how to handle ICE agents or any other authority figures is vital, according to Shannon.

“They need to know ‘If this, then this,’” Shannon said at the April 27 Health and Hospitals System Board of Directors meeting.

Shannon said if an ICE agent or any other law enforcement official does not have a warrant, he does not get access to a Health System patient.

“We need to make sure all staff is aware of that,” Shannon said.

Health Board Director Ric Estrada said the county continues in the opinion of “do no harm” in any situation regarding undocumented immigrants.

He said six weeks ago fear gripped the Little Village neighborhood in Chicago when stories were circulating of ICE raids.

“There were rumors and people panicked,” Estrada said. “There are raids and people are put away but those raids are very few.”

Shannon said that Health System lawyers are also checking to see if notices can be placed in county health facilities stating that the county provides health services to all people and to see if staff can wear buttons saying “You are welcome here” as ways to show that county health facilities are a safe place for undocumented individuals.

The Health System’s CEO stressed that county health officials do not collect data on individuals’ citizenship status. He said identification is required to ensure the person receiving treatment is, in fact, the individual whose name is on the paperwork, but that no one ever asks if someone is a registered citizen.

The county health department has formed an ad-hoc committee to address ways to get the message out to undocumented individuals that county health facilities are a safe place for treatment.

“We want (committee) members to look at what else we should be doing,” said M. Hill Hammock, chairman of the Board of Directors.

Marti Smith, an official with the National Nurses Organizing Committee, which represents more than 1,200 Cook County Health nurses, said nurses have been out canvassing homes in Chicago neighborhoods to spread information about the county facilities being safe for all individuals to attend. She said the Health System should spread that message throughout immigrant communities.

“We are asking CCHHS to exercise a leadership role here, to do direct community outreach to our patients regarding their insurance status and to communicate a welcoming message of safety,” Smith said.

She encouraged the county Health Board to let residents of immigrant communities know of their rights if ICE agents do show up and what being a resident of sanctuary city actually means. She said the Health System should educate staff on how to handle issues regarding undocumented residents.


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