Undocumented immigrants are facing new means of deportation, as an increasing number of hospitals across the nation are adopting “medical repatriation”, a process that allows U.S. hospitals to deport an unconscious patient without their consent should they come up as an undocumented immigrant. The process is controversial, and immigrant advocates argue that it could be violating U.S. and international laws by targeting an immigrant while he or she is rendered helpless.

“They don’t have advocates, and they don’t have people who will speak on their behalf,” said immigrant advocate and attorney, John De Leon, of Miami, Fla. to The Huffington Post.

Medical repatriation is not officially mandated by the federal government, and even though the deportation could jeopardize patient health, U.S. hospitals are using this process to easily cut high costs. Nevertheless, immigrant advocates are worried that more hospitals will begin to adopt this process in the near future due to the health reform. With the chance of an increasing number of undocumented immigrants being removed through this process, there comes the risk of losing track of the number of deported.

“The problem is it’s all taking place in this unregulated sort of a black hole … and there is no tracking,” said law professor Lori Nessel, director of the Center for Social Justice at Seton Hall Law School, where free legal representation is offered to immigrants.

The Huffington Post, The Center for Social Justice and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest report an estimated 600 immigrants were involuntarily deported by U.S. hospitals through medical repatriation over the last five years. Some patients who were deported back to their home countries consequently died from being moved to facilities that provided poor medical care.

Hospitals are initially required to treat patients seeking medical treatment, regardless of their citizenship, status, or insurance. However, once the patient is treated and stabilized, the funding stops, and the hospital is no longer required to provide medical care. Care to the uninsured can be very expensive, and with the recent budget cuts, hospital are desperately looking for ways to cut spending. Most undocumented immigrants do not have health insurance, and they are not eligible for insurance programs, such as Medicaid.

The American Medical Association’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs issued a statement in 2009, strongly cautioning doctors to not “allow hospital administrators to use their significant power and the current lack of regulations” to deport undocumented patients.

The statement adds, “Doctors cannot expect hospitals to provide costly uncompensated care to patients indefinitely. But neither should physicians allow hospitals to arbitrarily determine the fate of an uninsured, non-citizen immigrant patient.”

Krysta Loera is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. Follow her on Twitter @KrystaLoera