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San Diego Migrant Shelter Nurse Says ‘System Is Overwhelmed’

Migrant children rest at the Tijuana sports facility Benito Juarez, Nov. 27, ...

Photo by Jean Guerrero

Above: Migrant children rest at the Tijuana sports facility Benito Juarez, Nov. 27, 2018.

In the wake of a second death of a migrant child within three weeks along the Southern U.S. border, a registered nurse who coordinates medical care for child migrants and their parents at a San Diego shelter said more staff and resources are needed.

“We feel overwhelmed,” said Marcela Wash, who has worked at the shelter, currently located in southern San Diego County, since October. “Everybody’s tasked, everybody’s doing what they can.”

Wash said immigration officials drop off nearly 40 children and their parents every day at the shelter for a health assessment, meals, a bus token, and a bed for one or two nights. The migrants have been granted temporary asylum while awaiting their court hearing, and come straight out of immigration processing and detention, she said. Before that, most have waited in Tijuana shelters.

“After their claims are processed in detention, then they get released to us,” Wash explained. “Some of them arrive with upper respiratory problems, nausea or vomiting, and some of them come with very few cases of chicken pox which require isolation but not necessarily higher level of care to a hospital or an emergency room.”

She said most people arrive healthily, and general issues are resolved with a shower, hot meal and a good night’s sleep. But she added, the initial assessment and triage at the shelter is critical.

Photo by Jean Guerrero

A child standing in rainwater near a migrant camp in Tijuana, Nov. 29, 2018.

“Especially kids,” she said. ”Kids can feel kind of so-so one hour and then the next hour go downhill very fast. We have been very cautious and very diligent of making sure we have proper staffing, clinical staffing, to make sure that we meet their needs upon arrival and not wait until something gets worse.”

Wash said approximately five children have recently been hospitalized.

“There have been some kids that were admitted in order to be treated for their conditions,” Wash said. “And they spend an average of one to two days in the hospital and then they get released back to the shelter.”

She said migrants are often most vulnerable during their time in detention because they don’t receive adequate nutrition and hygiene.

“They come over not having bathed for three or however many days they’ve been in detention,” she said. “The consistent story is that they’re only fed juice, frozen burritos and peanut butter crackers for every meal.”

She added the migrants are “very resilient.”

“They’re not coming over with pre-established conditions,” she said. “They were healthy where they were. Many have received their vaccinations. So the narrative that they’re bringing over diseases and exposing us to all kinds of things is not because they’re bringing them with them, it’s because of the situations they’re encountering either at the border or in detention.”

Wash said the majority of migrants arriving at the San Diego shelter are from the recent caravan from Honduras. She said her volunteer team of nearly 50 doctors, nurses and health workers are keeping up with the flow, but she said the current overall system — from federal immigration officials to local governments — is not sustainable.

"They can't just focus on the law enforcement piece," she said. “These are human beings that need to have their most basic needs addressed."

In the wake of the second death of a migrant child within three weeks along the Southern U.S. border, a registered nurse who coordinates medical care for child migrants and their parents at a San Diego shelter said more staff and resources are desperately needed.

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