In the wake of at least five children dying in US government custody in the last nine months, two nurses told BuzzFeed News immigration agents have delayed taking sick children in increasingly dire condition to a hospital near the border for treatment, putting the kids at risk of potentially severe health issues.
The two registered nurses, who have treated immigrant children at a hospital in the Rio Grande Valley, said young patients arriving in recent months are often in such poor health that they're "on the borderline" of medical staff needing to call a specialized rapid response team of doctors to prevent them from going into respiratory or cardiac arrest.
The hospital is located in the southernmost tip of Texas, an area that has recently seen some of the largest numbers of immigrant families crossing the border. The nurses spoke to BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity out of fear of losing their jobs.
The conditions faced by immigrant children in the custody of US Customs and Border Protection have drawn concern from attorneys and advocates for years, but after the death of at least five children in US custody and an increase in families being apprehended at the border, the issue is more pressing than ever.
Recently, many of the children entering the hospital from CBP custody have suffered severe respiratory distress, dehydration, and fevers that should've prompted agents to hospitalize them sooner, one nurse said.
"In some cases they should've been here a week ago and they decided to wait until the last minute," the nurse told BuzzFeed News. "It makes me wonder what Border Patrol is doing. Why is it taking them so long to realize they need to take them to the hospital?"
Many of the younger children taken to the hospital are treated for respiratory issues, while older ones tend to be dehydrated, the nurse added.
"They're so dehydrated their lips are cracked," the nurse said.
CBP did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
US in-custody deaths and reports of deteriorating detention conditions come as authorities say they don't have enough space to hold the record number of Central American immigrant families showing up at the border.
Earlier this year, Border Patrol held hundreds of immigrants underneath a bridge surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire, forcing them to endure cold, windy nights sleeping on gravel. Hundreds of others who were held at a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas, said adults and children had to sleep outside on dirt and grass.
A government watchdog group found that immigrants were being detained in dangerous, overcrowded, standing room-only cells, with some standing on toilets to get breathing space. In recent weeks, reports from a Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas, drew outrage after lawyers went public with what they saw. Attorneys described children caring for infants and toddlers, a lack of access to soap and toothbrushes, and inadequate food, water, and sanitation.
Some migrants arriving at the southern border may already be sick after making a long journey through Mexico, one of the nurses said. Others are likely to fall ill after being taken into CBP custody, where they're held in packed cells for weeks, often without access to soap, water, or the ability to sleep.
"It's a cycle because we send them out healthy, but they're just going to end up getting sick again because they're going back to the same conditions," the nurse said. "Border Patrol only brings them in when they're 99% bad. If this is how they treat kids I don't want to know how they treat the parents."
In one case, a child with chicken pox and suffering from respiratory issues was taken to the hospital for treatment, the nurse said, but Border Patrol agents who brought them in failed to inform medical staff, or were unaware, that the child had also injured their foot crossing the border. It was only days later when the child's foot had "massively" swollen and become infected that medical staff noticed the injury.
"At one point we thought [he was] going to lose his foot," the nurse said.
An infectious disease doctor prescribed four weeks of antibiotics for the child, but Border Patrol agents said they didn't have anyone at the facility who could ensure the child properly took them. Ultimately, that wasn't an issue as the child, who came in with no socks or underwear, stayed at the hospital for nearly a month.
Some children, often in mucus-stained shirts they've been wearing since crossing the border, have arrived at the hospital with severe diaper rashes because their parents were unable to get clean diapers in CBP custody. The youngest child brought in by border agents, a one-month-old, was suffering from the flu and respiratory distress and was rushed to the intensive care unit, the nurse said.
"I thought, 'this kid is going to die,'" the nurse said.
Worried parents who often accompany their sick children at hospitals are often too scared to ask for aid or even use the shower inside hospital rooms, the nurse said. Because she doesn't speak fluent Spanish, the nurse said she often struggles to communicate.
"I wish I could talk to them, you can see in their faces that they're defeated and confused," the nurse said. "It's heartbreaking."
One Border Patrol agent asked hospital staff if a girl with a broken arm could stay an extra night because she was still in pain and would otherwise have to sleep on a concrete floor at the station.
Other agents have prevented children from watching television in their hospital rooms because "they don't have that" at CBP facilities, and parents are not allowed to watch the news "so they don't get any ideas," the nurse said. Border Patrol agents have sometimes referred to immigrants in their custody as "disgusting," and asked if the nurse is upset that immigrants coming into the US are using hospital resources.
"They'll ask me 'Don't you hate that they're using resources?'" the nurse said. "I pay taxes and I don't mind."
Another nurse who works at the same hospital echoed similar comments from border agents.
"It hurts to see some of them have that kind of mindset, as if the migrants are nothing — and they're the ones watching them," the nurse told BuzzFeed News. "They're no longer human in their eyes."