In February, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on the U.S.-Mexico border in order to reroute federal funds towards the construction of a wall as a means of deterring illegal immigration. However, the government is failing to provide money towards the humanitarian crisis developing in border cities like El Paso, Texas.
As the flow of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. increases to a six-year high—mostly families fleeing gang violence, political instability or poverty—the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has changed many of its detention policies. Asylum-seekers are no longer given assistance coordinating travel to live with relatives or sponsors while their claims are being processed, and as a result many migrants are stranded in border cities without money, food or communication.
Despite asylum-seekers residing in the country legally once applying for asylum, they also don’t qualify for social services such as Medicaid, until their asylum has been granted. Therefore, it has fallen on the shoulders of nonprofit organizations to provide food, shelter and medical care. While border cities are used to affording some level of migrant care, the massive increase in migration over the past few years is causing significant stress on human and financial resources.
“The care we are providing we could never have foreseen—or imagined spending what we are spending,” said Ana Melgoza, vice president of external affairs for San Ysidro Health, a community health care system that provides care to migrants in San Diego.
In El Paso, there has been a 1,689 percent increase in border apprehensions compared to last year. Nonprofits must call on financial donations and medical volunteers to meet the demands.
One of these volunteer doctors is Carlos Gutierrez, who uses his lunch breaks to see migrants in a hotel bathroom being rented out by Annunciation House, a nonprofit organization that has spent more than $1 million on migrant shelters in the past four months alone. Gutierrez regularly treats over 500 migrants each day; the patients are mostly young children with coughs and colds, severe blisters on their feet, or out-of-control diabetes due to their insulin being thrown away by Border Patrol agents.
However, some cases are more serious, like one man who arrived with a wound so large his bone was visible with flesh-eating bacterial infection to match.
“I mean, this is the best we can do,” said Gutierrez about the extreme lack of time and resources the volunteer clinics possess to treat everyone who comes through the doors. “We could be doing it better. But when they are in our care nobody is dying.”
Over two dozen people have died in immigrant detention centers under the Trump’s administration. After two children died in December, the government responded by adding more nurses and doctors to its facilities. According to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, medical screens are currently done on every entering child under 18 years of age, and approximately 60 children are taken to the hospital to be treated every day.
When the migrants are released from custody, however, they often find themselves starting from scratch at a volunteer clinic such as the one Gutierrez works at. Because there is so little communication between the clinics and those who work inside detention facilities, volunteer doctors must spend valuable time trying to determine a diagnosis for a second time as well as what treatments the patient was already given.
When asked if he believed the volunteer aid that the clinics run on is sustainable, Gutierrez merely shook his head and said, “I’m so tired.”