WASHINGTON—Border Patrol agents along the southern border have taken 21,000 sick or injured illegal immigrants to hospitals since January, according to Kevin McAleenan, acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Agents have spent 250,000 hours—the equivalent of 28 years—at hospitals with sick individuals.
“We are being faced with a younger and sicker population this year than we’ve ever seen at the border before,” McAleenan said during a hearing in front of the House Oversight and Reform Committee on July 18.
“We see a lot of communicable disease, a lot of severe illnesses. In some cases, we’ve had immediate surgery required for congenital defects—they actually came to the border to have surgery.”
Border Patrol agents usually ask immediately if anyone has a health issue, when encountering individuals who have just crossed the border. And in some high-traffic areas, such as the Rio Grande Valley in southeast Texas, a Border Patrol paramedic is on hand.
The Border Patrol has been swamped with illegal border crossings for months, with May being the high point so far this year, at 4,200 apprehensions every day on average.
Of the 132,000 apprehensions in May, more than 72 percent were unaccompanied children or individuals making up a family unit.
Border Patrol has struggled to deal with the influx, with 40 percent to 60 percent of agents being redirected to humanitarian care at any given time.
Border facilities—built decades ago to handle single males from Mexico for a few hours—quickly became overcrowded.
In El Paso, Texas, one facility that has a capacity of 125 people was overloaded with 900 people on May 8, according to an Inspector General report.
“Further limiting available space is the need to separate detainees with infectious diseases, such as chicken pox, scabies, and influenza, from each other and from the general population,” the May 30 report states.
On May 21, CBP had to stop taking in migrants at the main processing facility in McAllen, Texas, after a large number of detainees began showing signs of flu-related illnesses.
A second report on July 2, regarding conditions at the Rio Grande Valley Sector, stated, “We are concerned that overcrowding and prolonged detention represent an immediate risk to the health and safety of DHS agents and officers, and to those detained.”
To handle the influx, two new soft-sided facilities have been erected in southern Texas and two more in El Paso.
400,000 Medical Screenings
Since January, the DHS has conducted more than 400,000 medical health interviews with illegal aliens encountered by Border Patrol, as well as 80,000 more in-depth medical assessments in custody.
The new protocol of medical screenings was implemented after the deaths of two children in Border Patrol custody in December. Guatemalans Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7, died Dec. 8 and Felipe Gomez Alonzo, 8, died the week of Christmas. Autopsy reports for both children revealed that both died from a bacterial infection that led to multiple-organ failure.
Alonzo’s father brought his son to the border for easier entry, according to a relative. “We heard rumors that they could pass [into the United States]. They said they could pass with the children,” Catarina Gomez Lucas, the boy’s 21-year-old stepsister, told the Associated Press.
In response to the deaths, then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said all children will receive “a more thorough hands-on assessment at the earliest possible time post-apprehension—whether or not the accompanying adult has asked for one.”
“I have personally engaged with the Centers for Disease Control to request that their experts investigate the uptick in sick children crossing our borders and identify additional steps hospitals along the border should be undertaking to prepare for and to treat these children,” Nielsen said in a statement on Dec. 26, 2018.
McAleenan said that since Nielsen’s announcement, more than 200 health professionals have been embedded at border facilities and are screening new arrivals and providing critical triage—a 10-fold increase. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) also has 2,300 agents and officers who are trained EMTs and paramedics.
“I’m confident no law enforcement agency in the world is providing more critical life-saving care and medical support than CBP,” McAleenan said, adding that the Coast Guard and the Public Health Service are providing vital support.
‘You Do What You Have to Do’
Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.) provided the hearing with his perspective of being an emergency doctor who has also helped train emergency staff for 52 hospitals across the United States.
“I’ve delivered a baby in a parking lot because we were just so overwhelmed. You do what you have to do when you’re overwhelmed,” Green told McAleenan, empathizing with the Border Patrol, who are operating under severe conditions.
“In emergency medicine, we teach our doctors to be very, very cautious because a child can be sick and not look sick,” Green explained. “They look great, their vital signs are fantastic, and then they crash really fast. So expecting people, particularly people who aren’t trained in emergency medicine—which took, by the way, four years of undergrad, four years of med school, and three years of residency—expecting those individuals to recognize a child that’s about to crash is really inappropriate and unfair.
“And by the way, when the physician codes that patient and they die anyway, and that doctor or that nursing team has tried really hard, it’s not their fault, either. They’re doing the best that they can.”
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) brought up the concern of Ebola being carried into the United States—with the World Health Organization’s warning on July 17 of an outbreak in Congo.
Hundreds of Africans have started coming through the southern border in recent months, after traveling up through South and Central America.
Since May 30, more than 1,100 Africans have been apprehended by Border Patrol in the Del Rio, Texas, area. They hail from 19 African nations, but most are from the Congo and Angola, according to Sector Chief Raul Ortiz.
It’s an astronomical increase, considering that only eight Angolans and 11 Congolese crossed the entire southern border throughout the 12 years from 2007 through 2018, according to CBP apprehension data.
McAleenan said he’s watching the Ebola developments carefully and is in close contact with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
“We’re somewhat insulated, given the incubation period for Ebola is about 21 days [and] the journey from Africa to our border generally takes 30 days or more,” McAleenan said.