Border doc: Illegal immigrants are ‘pretty healthy population’


WAITING FOR HELP: Marta Beltran, 19, of El Salvador, holds her 18-month-old son, Lenny, as they ride a McAllen shuttle bus from the Greyhound station to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church Shelter.

By Tori Richards |

The masses of illegal immigrants crossing the Texas border have apparently received decent health care including vaccinations in Central America and aren’t carrying an influx of disease contrary to public opinion, a treating physician told

“They are a pretty healthy population,” said Dr. Martin Garza, a pediatrician who is part of a volunteer screening program set up by the Texas Medical Association. “I always ask about vaccinations and they count the list of what they’ve had. Pregnant women all state they have had prenatal care.”

And the immigrants aren’t saying they’re coming to America for free health care or to get a great job, but rather to escape the suffocating violence in the Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, Garza said.

The doctor sees the population of adults and any accompanying minors after they have been released by the Border Patrol in McAllen, Texas. The immigrants are given a notice to appear at a future immigration hearing and then dropped off at a Greyhound bus station where they are to travel to a destination where friends or relatives await.

Both the Texas Medical Association and Catholic Charities recently stepped in to help when immigrants started flooding the bus station for lengthy periods, sometimes spending the night. Nearby Sacred Heart Catholic Church agreed to provide a large room where the immigrants could sleep, eat or clean up before their journey. Catholic Charities donates supplies and food while the Texas Medical Association has set up a makeshift clinic in an onsite trailer.

A similar scenario was created 50 miles away in Brownsville, Texas, although the majority of the immigrants are released through McAllen, Garza said.

The types of ailments Garza and his rotating staff of volunteer doctors have encountered include scabies, flu and colds, “the stuff I see in my office. We’ve had two cases of chicken pox in the children.” At their appointment, the adults are given advice on how to seek indigent medical care and are encouraged to continue any vaccinations at their final destination.

CHARITABLE CASE: Two-month-old Allison from El Salvador is cared for by Catholic Charities volunteer Luisa Escamilla, as Allison’s mother showers at the shelter setup for immigrant families from Central America in McAllen, Texas. Allison and her mother were given food and clothes at the shelter in preparation for a bus ride north to reunite with family.

The number of immigrants crossing the border since last year has been reported to be around 60,000, although the Department of Homeland Security was unable to provide a figure to The Associated Press has reported that Obama administration officials have refused to say how many people had been released even though officials have been asked numerous times. Catholic Charities did not respond to emails and phone calls questioning the number of immigrants they have assisted.

Garza said his staff was seeing about 50 a day, which is a small percentage of the people passing through. Medical Association doctors only screen patients if they request it.

“That tapered down to 10 about a week and a half ago and I thought we were slowing down, but now it’s revving up again,” he said.

The doctors have been asked by state and federal officials to continue staffing the clinic for another three to six months.

DHS spokesperson Rachel Schultz with the Office of Health Affairs said the Border Patrol does its own screening with doctors and nurses when the immigrants are detained.

“Anybody through that screening who is suffering with an affliction is transferred to a local hospital,” she said. “It’s not a large number given the volume. The typical issues we are seeing are things we can expect going through a journey like that — sprained ankles, dehydration, scrapes.”

This information is in sharp contrast to other reports that the Ebola virus, swine flu and tuberculosis are rampant. Garza cautioned that he does not have knowledge of any health risks associated with the unaccompanied children because they remain in Border Patrol custody and aren’t released on Greyhound buses.

“We do know that there were three flu cases and four tuberculosis,” Schultz said. “In contrast, Texas has 1,300 cases of TB a year.”

The DHS continues to monitor the health situation at the detention centers.

“Right now there has not been an outbreak that we have heard of but the risk is still there any time you have large numbers in small places,” Schultz said.