Feb. 2, 2012 — -- Support is pouring in for a California man who was denied a kidney transplant because of his immigration status.
Jesus Navarro, an immigrant from Mexico, was on an organ donor list for six years before he received word from UC San Francisco's transplant center that he was next in line.
The day of his final consultation, doctors discovered Navarro was an illegal alien and called off surgery.
The 35-year-old's wife stepped in and offered her own kidney. She was a match, but doctors still refused to operate.
Now, city councilmen, advocacy groups and labor union leaders across the state are reaching out.
"It's really troublesome that we've gotten to a point in this country where you allow a person to die because of his so-called legal status," said Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, who also is the vice president of Glass, Molders International Union.
Councilman De La Fuente said his attorneys are working with Kaiser Permanente, Navarro's insurance company, to get him back on the operating table before it's too late.
"He has a willing donor," De La Fuente said. "He has private health care. This is ridiculous."
After an immigration audit, Navarro lost his job at Pacific Steel in Berkeley, Calif., on Jan. 3. He had been working there for 14 years. For now, his daily dialysis treatment is covered by private insurance, which runs out in February.
"There's absolutely no reason for UCSF to deny the transplant based on the argument he won't have the means of providing after care," De La Fuente said. "Even when his insurance runs out, he's covered by the union for 18 months."
But that's exactly the argument UCSF is making.
Though UCSF refused to comment specifically on Navarro's case, a spokeswoman, Karin Rush-Monroe, explained the hospital's policy.
"It's not just, 'OK, we've got an organ,' but they have to be able to maintain it," she said.
"There's a whole host of factors that go into a review for a transplant, including immigration status," Rush-Monroe said. "Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services mandate that transplant patients be thoroughly evaluated for financial ability to sustain a transplanted organ long term, primarily because following surgery, patients must take costly immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of their lives."
To some immigration reform advocates, the key issue is not whether a U.S. organ recipient has adequate insurance, its whether or not they're in the United States legally. They ask: Why burden the U.S. health care system with the problems of other nations' citizens?
"It should be the responsibility of the home country to provide the other services," said Ira Mehlam, the national media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "The priority ought to be on people who are legal citizens of this country.
"Anybody who is in a life-threatening situation, you have to provide the care, but in a situation like this where there is an opportunity for someone to leave the country and get care -- they need to do so," Mehlam said.
Donald Kagan, who received a kidney transplant from UCSF last year, says someone in Navarro's position wouldn't obtain the quality medical care he needs in Mexico.
He also noted that organ donations involve two people -- and it just so happens that Kagan's donor was an illegal immigrant.
"A person ... had absolutely nothing and was willing to give his kidney to me," said Kagan, the co-owner of a Berkeley technology firm. "What they're saying is that only people who have money should get transplants, and it shouldn't be that way."
Kagan's wife and two children are from Nicaragua. He said if he were Nicaraguan, he'd be dead right now.
"I'm lucky enough to be alive," he said. "Neither myself nor my brother who received a transplant, neither of us would be here if it weren't for those donors."
Kagan said he was never asked whether he was a legal citizen.
Navarro's case has shed light on a debate involving health care and immigration status.
Some medical officials say having to choose between saving a life and adhering to policies when it comes to undocumented immigrants puts them in a difficult role.
Two brothers were denied kidney transplants last year at Bellevue Hospital in New York because they couldn't pay for the surgery.
For now, Navarro continues his dialysis treatment, cleansing his blood of deadly toxins each day.
He's hopeful he can get surgery soon -- for his 3-year-old daughter's sake if for nothing else.
"We are thankful for all of the support. It means a lot," Navarro said.