Sick immigrants sent back to a Mexican border city by the Trump administration and living in an encampment are not getting adequate medical care, physicians and lawyers say.
Helen Perry, operations director of Global Response Management, an organization providing free health care to immigrants and asylum-seekers, said some of the people she has treated have been turned away from local clinics and hospitals. In some cases, their symptoms are dismissed or not taken seriously.
"I am worried that people are going to die. I'm super fucking worried," Perry told BuzzFeed News. "Right now, I'm looking at how to have in-patient capacity to take care of these people myself. I'm not convinced they're not going to be turned away."
Hundreds of immigrants — most of them seeking asylum in the United States — have been sent back to Matamoros, Mexico, under the Trump administration's "Remain in Mexico" policy while their cases are processed in the US. Many of them have been living in tents on the sidewalk near an international bridge, above the banks of the Rio Grande river. In some cases, they live under tarps held up by ropes that aren't strong enough to shield them against dropping winter temperatures and rain, which often means sleeping on wet blankets.
While there is no official count of how many people are living in the encampment, advocates in early November estimated there were at least 2,600 people.
Perry, a nurse practitioner, said the exposure, cramped conditions, and lack of clean water are concerning. Physicians are also worried about a flu or chicken pox outbreak, which could be particularly dangerous to vulnerable people like pregnant women. Customs and Border Protection had previously said it would not give flu vaccines to immigrants it detains, which would've included immigrants sent back to Mexico, despite recommendations from the CDC. Perry said she is hoping to start vaccinating immigrants at the camp soon.
In one case, a man having a heart attack approached Perry at the tent in which she sees patients clutching his chest and having a hard time breathing. After confirming that his heart wasn't pumping effectively, Perry quickly sent him to a hospital. But he was discharged less than 24 hours later and back at the camp with blood thinner medication and no further testing. He should have received additional testing and care, Perry said.
"That's expensive. Someone has to pay. And if you're a refugee in an already health care–constrained area, you're a low priority," Perry said. "What I have been told is supposed to happen and what actually happens are two very different things."
As the Trump administration has expanded the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program and steadily sent back more than 54,000 people to Mexico, immigration officials have maintained that Mexico would provide adequate aid to them.
"We’re working with the government of Mexico. They have promised — right? — they have committed that they will do everything they can to provide adequate protection and shelter for those individuals waiting in Mexico under the MPP program," Mark Morgan, the acting CBP commissioner, told reporters.
At a White House press briefing, Morgan said that US officials have visited shelters where there was adequate medical attention, enough food, and safety was "okay." But in places like Matamoros, which has only two shelters, there isn't enough space to house every immigrant the US sends over.
At a recent congressional committee hearing on MPP, Erin Thorn Vela, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, told lawmakers that contrary to what immigration officials have said, people are being sent to live on the streets of Matamoros, not shelters.
While the Mexican government has said MPP was a unilateral decision made by the Trump administration, Thorn Vela was asked if Mexico was not living up to its agreement under MPP.
"I have not seen that promise fulfilled on the ground in Matamoros," Thorn Vela said. "They are living in the streets in a 2,000-person refugee camp that does not have any shelter for them."
On Nov. 14, a doctor and an attorney rushed a 2-year-old girl to the international bridge connecting Matamoros and Brownsville, Texas, to ask CBP officers to remove a sick child from MPP and allow her into the US with her parents.
The girl was severely malnourished and had several infections. Doctors in Mexico knew they had to get her to a hospital as soon as possible, but couldn't reach an ambulance to pick them up near the encampment. It was getting too dark for them to safely drive her into a city.
"If we were to take her to a Mexican hospital and they treat her like all of the other patients and she was dismissed, she could literally die," Perry said. "We decided, fuck it, let's take our chances, try to get her an exception to MPP, and get her to a US hospital, where we have some say over her care."
Ultimately, CBP agreed to let the girl and her parents into the US, where doctors rushed her to the emergency room and later recovered.
In a statement, CBP said officers consider whether to enroll and keep someone in MPP on a case-by-case basis.
"All factors need to be considered, including whether the status of the particular medical condition and the immediate health of the migrant at the time of encounter is something requiring immediate medical attention," CBP said.
Megan Algeo, a doctor volunteering with immigrants in Matamoros with Global Response Management, had accompanied the girl and her parents at the bridge. Algeo said in the time she was there, she had helped three other sick patients get removed from the MPP program.
"Each of these patients had acutely worsened in the camp, and despite our best efforts we were not able to safely manage their medical issues locally," she told BuzzFeed News. "The longer people stay in the camp, the sicker they are going to get."
Charlene D’Cruz, an attorney working with asylum-seekers in Matamoros with funding from Lawyers for Good Government, said Mexico isn't doing enough to care for the people at the tent camp. It all falls on volunteers.
"Not only is Mexico not providing adequate medical care, but they're not protecting women and girls from crime in the tent city," D’Cruz told BuzzFeed News. "Everybody is failing them."
As the flu season draws nearer, D’Cruz thinks back to the children who died in US custody last year, some of them from influenza.
"The irony of that is that the children were in US custody, and even then the administration didn't care," D’Cruz said. "They'll be less caring that somebody is going to die on the Mexican side."