US/Mexico border installment #2: The emergency room

Feeling frustrated about US treatment of migrants and refugees, and with some free time this month, I decided to go to the San Diego/Tijuana border to volunteer. I spent most of my time on the San Diego side. I’m writing a few short reflections based on this experience. In August I will be on the Mexico/Guatemala border and will do the same.

My most gut wrenching experience this week was to accompany a young woman, and her three children, to an emergency room.  Her oldest daughter, 3, was sick and the doctors at the shelter sent her to the hospital for further assessment and treatment. 

They had been allowed to cross into the US earlier that day.  They had spent four days is immigration detention in what the migrants call the hielera (icebox), a very cold room where the lights are kept on 24 hours a day.  That’s where the three year old had gotten sick.  I met up with them at the emergency room about 8 PM.  They hadn’t eaten in 12 hours.  Nurses where trying to insert an IV into the hand of the child. There was a lot of screaming. The other two kids did not want to be six inches away from their Mom. They wouldn’t let me hold them. There was little that I could do but translate. 

Once that drama subsided, and the sick child fell asleep, someone from billing entered the room. While the shelter residents should be treated as homeless and not billed, the person from billing saw the address of one of the woman’s relatives and insisted that it be listed on the intake form. I pushed back, but did not win.  She would be charged. The billing person said that she should apply for Cal-Med, or could register for assistance provided by the hospital.

The young woman wanted nothing to do with anything that required registration for assistance. She wanted to be charged for the visit. I told her that it could cost thousands of dollars. This stunned her. She kept saying, “My kids are my world.”  She would not put them in jeopardy.  Finally she told me that while in detention a migration official had told her that if she applied for services her children could be taken away from her. While I told her that wasn’t true, she was panicked and would not budge.  She would be billed.

The billing person walked out to register the visit and took the woman’s immigration forms along. This caused another round of panic.  She did not what those documents out of her hands. They contained her story and were her lifeline. They were ultimately retrieved but not before being copied by the hospital and even that stressed her out. 

It was 1 AM by the time we left the ER.  She looked so tired and sad. 

I glimpsed the human side of a migration policy where people who are already suffering are made to suffer more.

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