Children are dying, hundreds of families are being left outside, sick, suffering. This public health crisis must end.
Nurses, whose life’s work is to protect and heal, are appalled at the lack of humane treatment for vulnerable children, and their families, who are seeking refuge and safety in the U.S.
The gift of asylum. While many Americans delighted in watching their children unwrap presents this week, perhaps that one, simple gift was a Guatemalan father’s hope for his son. Instead, after six days in U.S. custody (twice the 72-hour limit Border Patrol standards recommend), and after experiencing the toxic stress of incarceration, eight-year-old Felipe Alonzo Gomez spent this Christmas Eve in Alamogordo, N.M. — taking his last breath.
Felipe was the second child to die in U.S. detention just this month, after 7-year-old Jakelin Caal — both deaths following the loss of 20-month-old Mariee Juarez, who entered Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody in good health, and left with a deadly infection that nurses know can result from crowded, disease-prone conditions.
Meanwhile, in El Paso, where Felipe and his father first crossed into the U.S., other migrant children and families were spending Christmas Eve stranded at a Greyhound bus station, newly released by ICE — with no warning to local shelters, no money, no food, no ability to speak English, no medical help, and nowhere to go.
“The people who were dropped off this week have absolutely nothing. There are kids with fevers, coughs, congestions, diarrhea,” said RN Erin Curry, of El Paso, Texas. “They are sick, they are dehydrated, they don’t have coats. Some people don’t even have shoes.”
Curry and her husband Todd, a political science professor at University of Texas at El Paso, were two of many local volunteers who put their own lives on hold, including their family Christmas plans, to help what, over the course of this week, has become an estimated 1,000 migrants left at the Greyhound station.
“These are people who are scared, who have been treated like criminals. They are afraid to even come up to [the volunteers] because they don’t know who to trust,” said Curry. “Kids deserve to be kids, and yet these kids have been through so much. It breaks my heart.”
ICE has now begun notifying local organizations, such as Annunciation House, that drop offs would be occurring. However, Curry says shelters are still scrambling to find space and resources for such a large number of people (she and her husband raised $2000 via social media to help fund supplies). Leaving families to survive on the good will of frantic volunteers is especially concerning, says Curry, given that they are already sick.
“They’re holding them all together in detention. With unsanitary conditions, where when one person gets sick, and they all get sick,” said Curry, who has been volunteering at a shelter where her patients have been as young as four months old. “So now they all have cold symptoms. We have kids running temperatures, and there’s no real medical support.”
National Nurses United’s disaster relief program, the RN Response Network (RNRN) has 1,100 volunteer nurses on standby for potential border relief. And we are so proud of our El Paso RNs like Curry who are already on the ground, stepping up to provide help. But while nurses continue to speak out and stand up for our patients — including asylum-seeking children and their families — we are left with a question:
Why is our government not doing the same?
It is unconscionable that it took multiple child deaths and over a thousand people stranded at a bus stop in El Paso, sick, with no resources, on Christmas, to illustrate the peril of a policy that is based on punishment — rather than on humanitarian assistance, compassion and understanding.
As nurses, we feel it should go without saying that detention can only lead to negative health impacts for children, for families, and for anyone legally seeking asylum. But whether or not nurses and everyday people should have to inform our own government that it is being inhumane, there is no excuse for this recent loss of life — because we have already said, clearly, that our current immigration policy is a public health crisis.
In June, National Nurses United sent a letter to the Texas Department of State Health Services and Department of Family and Protective Services, warning that nurses were “extremely concerned about the welfare of [detained] children.”
“Many of the immigrant children … will already be suffering from malnutrition and exhaustion from their journey, as well as underlying health conditions related to poverty and poor living conditions. They have fled across harsh terrain, likely from places where they did not have access to medical care,” the letter stated, calling on the departments “to confirm that they are set up in a humane manner that will ensure the health and safety of the children and youth.”
NNU nurses have also protested, with community organizations and thousands of concerned citizens, at ICE headquarters in El Paso and at the “tent city” internment camp in Tornillo, Texas.
Nurses have clearly said again and again that “toxic stress” — which can be caused by crowded, traumatic, prison-like detention conditions — can impact children’s health for the rest of their lives, increasing their risk for illnesses such as depression, diabetes, asthma, cancer and heart disease. We have warned that crowded, reportedly “ice box-like” conditions increase the risk of infectious diseases and illnesses such as influenza.
And we have repeatedly spoken out about the lack of adequate medical care in detention centers. A Human Rights Watch report “Code Red,” released June 20, chronicles immigrant deaths in ICE detention due to poor medical care, an issue of great concern to NNU. According to the Human Rights Watch report, “poor medical treatment contributed to more than half the deaths reported by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during a 16-month period.”
In other words, these recent child deaths are not a surprise or a fluke. They are the natural end result of our current, inhumane U.S. immigration policy. Period.
The Trump Administration and Border Patrol should immediately end the practice of warehousing families and children in extremely cold, crowded, prison-like cells, make sure that all the families and children are provided safe and secure conditions while being considered for asylum, and guarantee that medical professionals are fully available to provide the ongoing professional medical assessment and care for them.
Especially during this holiday season, when so many of us are enjoying time with our loved ones, our hearts go out to the families of Felipe Alonzo Gomez, Jakelin Caal, and Mariee Juárez, to all the families who were left terrified and sick at an El Paso bus station, and to all the families who still don’t know when they will be freed from detention.
Nurses will never stop advocating for the health and safety of all people — until our government steps up and does the same.