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Last Updated: 24 June 2014
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Border Health Caucus concerned about immigrant children being housed in 'ice boxes'

By Steve Taylor
Dr. Manuel 'Manny' Acosta, chairman of the Border Health Caucus.

McALLEN, June 24 - The Border Health Caucus wants to help Border Patrol so that tens of thousands of undocumented children from Central America are not detained in “ice box” cold cells.

The group, which comprises physicians from Brownsville to El Paso and is affiliated with the Texas Medical Association, has sent a representative to Washington, D.C., to press for a more humanitarian approach by the federal government once unaccompanied children that have crossed the southwest border are captured by Border Patrol.

“We know what a difficult job Border Patrol has to do right now. We want to help,” said BHC Chairman Manuel “Manny” Acosta, an El Paso-based physician. “Our pediatricians and family practice doctors from up and down the border region are getting together to see what can be done to help. We have a lot of physicians that are willing to help in the detention centers.”

The representative the BHC has sent to Washington, D.C., is Jake Fuller, a governmental affairs consultant based in the Rio Grande Valley. Fuller was slated to visit with Health and Human Services officials, along with senior staff from the offices of Congressmen Rubén Hinojosa, Henry Cuellar, and Filemon Vela.

“We understand Border Patrol has a difficult job to do. They have an incredible workload. We want to help. We want to ensure the way these young children are dealt with is humane and that they receive all the medical attention they need,” Fuller said.

Fuller listed some of the stories he has heard from health care professionals that have cared for the immigrant children:

• Unaccompanied children are not read their legal rights.

• Once captured, unaccompanied children are transferred directly into a hielera (an ice house) where they stay until it reaches capacity (60 to 70).

• The unaccompanied children can be kept in the hielera anywhere from five to ten days.

• These hieleras are cold rooms, which seem like trailer storage units to the children because they have no windows or beds.

• The unaccompanied children say the rooms are very cold and that the older kids cuddle with the younger ones to keep warm since they sleep on the floor.

• The unaccompanied children say they have one toilet for about 50 people and they are held there for about five to ten days before they are transferred to a shelter.

• During this time, the unaccompanied children do not have access to showers/bathing or any legal counsel.

• The unaccompanied children say during this time they are only getting fed once a day, goldfish crackers and a bottle of water. They say the food and water are tossed to them like dogs.

“Basically, we are hearing what has been echoed in recent news articles. Our members are very concerned,” Fuller said. “We could have a looming medical crisis on our hands.”

Fuller said he would be relaying the concerns of physicians in the BHC to the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission. The BHC holds its annual conference in Washington, D.C., on July 23. The title of the conference is “Disease Knows No Borders.” Congressman Cuellar will co-chair the conference.

Border Patrol agents have been asked not to comment to the media about how unaccompanied immigrant children are dealt with once they have crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico. Border Patrol agents attended a workshop with elected officials, community groups and public health officials at the McAllen Convention Center on Monday but did not stay for the news conference that followed.

Eduardo Olivarez, chief administrative officer for Hidalgo County’s health and human services department, said he has heard of immigrant children suffering from malnourishment and constipation. However, the biggest concern his doctors have for the children, Olivarez said, is dehydration.

“We are seeing some malnourishment and constipation but the biggest problem is dehydration. These folks are not used to the food and they are not used to the different allergies we have here. They are not used to our pollen. They have bumps, bruises, cuts, which is to be expected. Our doctors are seeing respiratory complications because of the allergies. Our natural environment is very different to where these folks are coming from,” Olivarez said.

Olivarez said his understanding of federal guidelines for undocumented immigrants captured by Border Patrol is that medical screenings are undertaken by the U.S. Public Health Service Administration’s physicians and nurses. “From what I have been told only five immigrants have been taken to the hospital,” he said.

“The illnesses we have seen so far are not that great. We have had about five cases of chicken pox and one reported case of tuberculosis which has yet to be determined. When you consider the thousands of children being detained, the communicable disease part is not there,” Olivarez said.

“Is this a medical emergency? I have had no fatalities. I do not have my hospitals full. The ER activity is minimal. My concern is sustainability. We are looking at a one month to four month operation. The volunteers have done a wonderful job, our physicians, our nurses; our PAs have done a wonderful job. But I have to maintain that for the next four months.”

Olivarez added that the RGV Pharmacists Association has been great, with members providing over-the-counter medication and prescriptions.

Eddie Guerra, Hidalgo County’s interim sheriff, said he has been told that there are five times more undocumented immigrants in the Border Patrol detention centers than there is space for them.

“There is hardly any room for the immigrants. The detention centers are stretched to the limits so Border Patrol is holding them at their sally ports. The children coming to Sacred Heart Church (in McAllen) are saying they are constipated because they did not want to go to the bathrooms at the detention center. Some of them have not eaten for a long time so their stomachs have shrunk. It is challenging for Border Patrol,” Guerra said.

“I would like to see our state and federal government come together on this issue. We need immigration reform desperately. It is the only answer. If we passed immigration reform that allows some workers to come here that message would get back to these countries in Central America where the mothers and children are coming from.”

Write Steve Taylor

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