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A father's death highlights barriers to medical care for CT's undocumented workers

Rosa Isabel Núñez Villanueva with her father’s belongings in the empty space of his room. Johnne Alberto Núñez Palomino age 54, an immigrant from Peru here for less than a year, died February 14th at their apartment in Hartford, Connecticut February 27, 2024.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
Rosa Isabel Núñez Villanueva stands with her father’s belongings in the empty space of his room. Johnne Alberto Núñez Palomino, a 54-year-old immigrant from Peru, lived here for less than a year. He died at their apartment in Hartford, Connecticut after working a long shift on Valentine's Day. February 27, 2024.

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When he came to Connecticut, Johnne Alberto Núñez Palomino envisioned economic opportunity and a pathway to reunite his family.

The family was determined to seek better opportunities in the United States, said his daughter, Rosa Isabel Núñez Villanueva, a 28-year-old from Lima, Peru.

Núñez Palomino and his son crossed the U.S.-Mexico border and arrived in Connecticut in March 2023.

Almost a year later, on Valentine's Day 2024, he died.

Núñez Palomino’s death has prompted discussions about health care access for vulnerable populations, highlighting the challenges faced by undocumented immigrants in obtaining adequate medical attention.

Working while sick

Despite a headache, Núñez Palomino went to work at a West Hartford restaurant. He had hoped he could leave early.

“My father requested permission, but they refused, despite seeing he was unwell,” Núñez Villanueva said.

She said her father returned home distressed. The following morning, she found him unresponsive.

First responders rushed Núñez Palomino to St. Francis Hospital, where doctors pronounced him dead of cardiac arrest. The news left the family devastated and with many questions about the patriarch’s last hours at work.

“[My father] informed me they hadn't provided him with his lunch or breaks,” Núñez Villanueva said.

Johnne Alberto Núñez Palomino age 54, an immigrant from Peru here for less than a year, died unexpectedly February 14th at his family’s apartment in Hartford, Connecticut February 27, 2024.
Provided by Rosa Isabel Núñez Villanueva
Johnne Alberto Núñez Palomino is survived by an infant grandchild, daughter, and son in Hartford, Conn., as well as a wife in Peru.

The restaurant’s manager told Connecticut Public that he would not comment on the family’s allegations. He said he would forward the inquiry to the human resources department. However, he said Núñez Palomino was a good person and worker.

Núñez Villanueva said the restaurant took advantage of her father.

"When someone is an immigrant, they're afraid they might get fired from their job,” Núñez Villanueva said. “They definitely weren't considerate of my dad."

Undocumented workers feel threatened

Maly Rosado, a Hartford City Council member , said undocumented individuals face distinct challenges at work and in the health care system.

Rosado said she hears concerning stories about employers threatening immigration enforcement on employees who complain about work conditions.

“I talk to undocumented workers, who told me that they've been threatened that they're going to call ICE on them,” Rosado said. “But day to day, individuals that are citizens are not even aware that other human beings are going through this.”

Rosado emphasizes a mounting demand for accountability regarding how employers treat undocumented workers.

“They know they work for less money, so they're exploiting them,” Rosado said.

Additionally, Núñez Palomino's death raised concerns about language barriers in health care.

Dr. Luis Diez-Morales, the chief medical officer and executive vice president at the Hispanic Health Council in Hartford, acknowledges these barriers. He stressed the importance of being able to speak a native language to accurately convey symptoms and access timely medical care.

“My first language is Spanish, and I am very aware that when we express our symptoms by translating them or using a translator, it may not communicate correctly,” Diez-Morales said. “I find that language is a big barrier for our Spanish-speaking migrant population.”

He noted that language barriers could impede communication between patients, their families, and healthcare providers, potentially leading to delays in diagnosis and treatment.

The Hispanic Health Council has pledged to provide monetary support towards the Núñez family’s funeral and cremation costs, and connect them to health and community services.

Calling for help

Elvis Tuesta, the Peruvian consul in Hartford, stated that the consulate is providing administrative support to the family as they navigate handling the documentation for the death.

"Our budget is limited. The family expressed their father's wish for cremation,” Tuesta said. “We're processing documentation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as per their request."

However, the process might be prolonged due to the required documentation and evaluation requested by the Peruvian government.

With his death, Núñez Palomino left behind his wife in Peru, whom he had hoped to eventually bring to Connecticut.

In the meantime, the family launched a GoFundMe campaign to alleviate funeral costs and financial burdens.

Despite the hardships, the family remains resilient.

Rosa Isabel Núñez Villanueva said she is determined to honor her father's memory by striving for a better future for herself and her family.

"We will persevere, as my dad always encouraged us to do, with faith and patience. Our determination remains strong as we strive to reunite our family, just as he wished,” Núñez Villanueva said.

“Despite any obstacles, we are committed to realizing his dreams," she said, "even if it requires time."

Maricarmen Cajahuaringa is a journalist with extensive experience in Latino communities' politics, social issues, and culture. She founded Boceto Media, a digital Spanish-language newspaper based in Connecticut. Maricarmen holds a Bachelor's in Social Work from Springfield College, and a Master's in Journalism and Media Production from Sacred Heart University. As a reporter for Connecticut Public, she is dedicated to delivering accurate and informative coverage of the Hispanic/Latino population in the region. Maricarmen is an experienced and passionate journalist who strives to bring a voice to the stories of her community.