Lee Health hosts forum for worried legal immigrants facing deportation

By Frank Gluck

December 2, 2017

Jean Phillipe came to Fort Myers in 2010 as a teenager fleeing the ravages of an earthquake-devastated Haiti.

Since then, he's found full-time work as a medical translator for the Lee Health hospital system — a good job that he had hoped to keep for years to come. But recent changes to U.S. immigration policy could soon force him, and thousands like him in this region, out of the country.

"I'm worried because of the opportunities that this land has offered (me)," Phillipe said.  "With the situation in my country, they're not ready to get all the people back. I'm really concerned about it."

Lee Health, a public hospital system and one of Southwest Florida's largest employers, hosted its first-ever forum Saturday for immigrants living in this country under the Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, programs.

The Temporary Protected Status program allows immigrants to stay in the United States, often for many years, if they are unable to return to their home countries because of violence or natural disasters. 

Haitians make up the largest such group in Southwest Florida, with an estimated 10,000 immigrants now living here. The Department of Homeland Security decided last month that they must leave within the next 18 months unless they can find other legal recourse to stay here.

The hospital system does not know exactly how many of its employees are here under the programs. But such immigrants are strongly represented in support staff and medical positions throughout the organization, said Yemisi Oloruntola-Coates, Lee Health's director for diversity and patient-care civil rights.

"As an organization, we thought that it was important," Oloruntola-Coates said. "We have employees that are being affected and we also know that other organizations in the community have the same situation."

Saturday's forum, held at Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Myers, was led by attorneys for the Miami-based group, Americans for Immigrant Justice. More than two dozen people, some wearing Lee Health badges, showed up for the event.

Lawyers explained their legal rights to remain silent, have attorneys and not be subject to searches without proper warrants. They also advised them to beware of scammers promising to quickly solve their immigration problems.

For those who are stopped by police, attorney Megan Humphreys advised: "You need to be polite. You need to be respectful. But you have a right to not answer their questions."

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