Dr. Fiona Danaher is an MGH Chelsea HealthCenter pediatrician and a staunch advocate for the safety and wellbeing of children. Dr. Danaher has been particularly outspoken about the plight of immigrant children and their families who have suffered under the current administration’s policies—from family separations at the border to the sudden decision to end medical deferred action.

Terminating medical deferred action meant that the undocumented parents of many seriously ill children would be receiving notice that their requests to stay in the U.S. for life-saving treatments (for diseases such as cancer and cystic fibrosis) would be denied, and they would be given 33 days to complete treatment and leave the country.

In early September, Dr. Danaher, along with Mass General Hospital for Children leaders Dr. Ron Kleinman and Dr. Elsie Taveras, published an oped in the Boston Globe calling for more humane immigration policies.

Dr. Danaher also joined in the public outcry against the termination of medical deferred action by giving testimony at a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill on September 11.  In a rare reversal, the administration announced on September 19 that it would reinstate the program, enabling some immigrants to remain in the US while undergoing life-saving treatment. 

We recently sat down with Dr. Danaher to talk about her work.

CCHI: In addition to a busy practice seeing patients and being a working mother with two young children, you’ve taken on this advocacy work. What drives you?  What are you seeing in your practice, and elsewhere, that keeps you pushing forward?

Fiona Danaher: All the anti-immigrant rhetoric that we’re seeing at the national level is really taking a toll on my patients and their families. I have had mothers, both documented and not, break down crying in my office during their children’s appointments because they are afraid their families could be torn apart by deportation at any time. It’s not an idle fear; I have seen it happen.

After the El Paso shooting, an emergency meeting had to be called at Chelsea High School to try to assuage children’s anxiety about becoming targets of anti-Latinx violence. Research is starting to demonstrate the physical and psychological toll that all this animosity takes on immigrants and US citizens alike. Perhaps becoming a mother has made this even more urgent to me. No family should have to live in such constant fear.

CCHI: The city of Chelsea is home to a large population of immigrants and has long been considered a gateway city in the US. What’s it like to practice in Chelsea? What makes the city unique?

Fiona Danaher: I love practicing medicine in Chelsea because it feels like the whole world is at your doorstep. I learn something new from my patients every time I come to clinic. Pediatricians are fortunate to get to follow along as children grow from infancy to adulthood, but it’s a particularly special privilege to watch them flourish in parallel with their families as they set down roots in this country.

CCHI: The termination of the medical deferred action program for immigrants was ultimately reversed. How did that feel for you personally, and how did it play out in your practice? 

Fiona Danaher: The whole experience was surreal. I testified next to a chronically ill child and young adult who were essentially forced to go before Congress to beg for their lives, solely because they were born on the wrong side of a border. The reinstatement of medical deferred action is a testament to those patients’ courage. My role was simply to provide context for their stories, and it was a tremendous honor to be there to support them. It’s hard to know if we can claim a full victory, as it remains to be seen whether U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will honor their commitment and give a fair review to every application they receive. But it was incredibly encouraging to see that our advocacy can be effective.

CCHI: Have you always been interested in public policy? When you were in medical school, did you envision that you’d be a spokesperson on political issues?

Fiona Danaher: I served on the student advisory board of Physicians for Human Rights when I was in medical school, but I am a bit of an introvert, so I never envisioned myself advocating so publicly. That said, I also never envisioned the federal government targeting immigrant children for political purposes. For me, treating children humanely is a question of basic morality. I knew I couldn’t sit on the sidelines.

CCHI: How is the Mass General community as a whole addressing the policies impacting our immigrant patients and their families?

Fiona Danaher: I’ve been really encouraged (though not surprised) to see how supportive Mass General has been of its immigrant patients and employees. Leadership sent out all staff messages in response to the new public charge regulation and to the threatened U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids over the summer, in an effort to both reassure and connect people to resources.

The MGH Immigrant Health Coalition, which is a multidisciplinary network of employees dedicated to promoting the health and social equity of immigrants, has been hard at work developing educational presentations and disseminating “Migration Is Beautiful” butterfly stickers for staff to wear on their ID badges as a symbol of support for immigrants.

MGH Chelsea has signed onto several amicus briefs challenging anti-immigrant policies that threaten our patients’ health, and the health center developed a medicolegal partnership to help patients understand their rights and options. Individual physicians have sent letters to Congress and gone to the Massachusetts State House to testify.

But most importantly, we’re continuing to provide sensitive care to our patients and their families, one visit at a time. We want them to know that we’re here for them.

CCHI: What is the most important thing that you’d like people, clinical and non-clinical, to know about this work?

Fiona Danaher: There are so many anti-immigrant policies emanating from Washington right now that tackling the problem can seem overwhelming. It’s a shock-and-awe approach designed to paralyze. But these policies are a matter of life and death for many, so there’s too much at stake for inaction to be a viable option.

After the medical deferred action hearing in Washington, DC, I was taking my shoes off in the airport security line and turned to see a child I recognized standing in line behind me. She had spoken eloquently at a press conference before the hearing about the lifesaving care she was receiving in Boston for her severe congenital heart disease. A look of recognition dawned on the child’s face as she turned to her mother and said, “Es la doctora (it’s the doctor)!” I may never see her again, but after that encounter, I know how much it meant to her that I showed up. So, I’d encourage people to show up for their immigrant friends and neighbors in whatever way they can. Advocacy is tremendously important, but even a little bit of kindness can go a long way.