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County: Migrant kids, families no threat to public health

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County: Migrant kids, families no threat to public health

  • Unaccompanied minors board a chartered airliner on the tarmac at Tucson International Airport last Wednesday, part of the federal effort to detain and process more than 52,000 children who have crossed into the United States through the Rio Grande Valley this year.
    Paul M. Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comUnaccompanied minors board a chartered airliner on the tarmac at Tucson International Airport last Wednesday, part of the federal effort to detain and process more than 52,000 children who have crossed into the United States through the Rio Grande Valley this year.

Immigrant children and families coming through Tucson are not a threat to public health according to a report released Friday by the Pima County Health Department.

The report was issued by Health Department Director Dr. Francisco Garcia in response to questions about the potential health threats created by the thousands of unaccompanied minors moving through Tucson.

"The unaccompanied minors that are sheltered or in transit through Pima County do not constitute a public health threat to this community," wrote Dr. Garcia. 

"This is based on my understanding of the current screening process; the low number of unaccompanied minors in this jurisdiction today; and an understanding of the function and operation of the local contracted shelter facility with regard to medical care, education and restriction of movement of the minors," he said.

More than 52,000 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended along the Southwest border this fiscal year, including more than 6,600 in the Tucson Sector. Once the children are detained by U.S. Border Patrol they are transferred to one of two processing stations, one at the Nogales Border Patrol station and the other at the McAllen Border Patrol station.

There the children are medically evaluated by personnel from U.S. Public Health Services, which includes skin testing for tuberculosis, tests for pregnancy, and assessments for behavioral health problems.

Each unaccompanied minor is also given three vaccines that cover measles, mumps and rubella, pertussis and diphtheria, and meningococcus. This week according to Dr. Garcia, public health officials added vaccinations for influenza.

According to the report, of the 4,000 unaccompanied minors processed at the Nogales Processing Center there were two cases of flu, two cases of chicken pox, and a single case of tuberculosis.

While there have been few cases at the Nogales processing station, officials with the Border Patrol union have been outspoken about the risk to agents. Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council told Fox News on Thursday that agents were "getting sick."

However, only two agents have contracted diseases, the most serious being a case of bacterial pneumonia. On Tuesday, the union for Border Patrol agents in the Laredo Sector tweeted that an agent contracted bacterial pneumonia.

While doctors found a child infected with swine flu at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, the disease has not spread to agents or other immigrants.

Meanwhile, at the Chula Vista station in San Diego, around 40 immigrants were quarantined for scabies and head lice and one agent apparently was infected, said Rob Zermeno, a representative of the Border Patrol union for San Diego. Scabies were  documented in early April at the BP station in McAllen.

Despite the few number of cases, there has been a panicky public debate about the potentials for outbreaks.

The fear of diseases promoted a suburb of Houston to pass a resolution banning undocumented children from entering, citing "health and safety" concerns.

The same fear prompted Murietta, Calif., Mayor Alan Long to lead a protest on July 1 that kept three buses carrying around 140 undocumented immigrant detainees from entering the city. 

Once children are processed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, they are handed over to Health and Human Services. Between 2008 and 2010, the length of the average stay for an unaccompanied minor was 61 days, according to a Congressional Research Service report from June. However, by May that average had dropped to 35 days.

On June 30, a shelter was opened at a building for student housing on Oracle Road, Garcia said. Once called College Place, the new facility is being operated by Southwest Key, a private nonprofit organization operated out of Austin, Texas. The facility here has 283 beds and is operated near capacity with 273 children, said Garcia.

Garcia also wrote about the family units, which unlike the unaccompanied minors are released by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, most often at the Greyhound Bus terminal in Tucson. 

In June, many of the family units came from the overwhelmed border stations in the Rio Grande Valley. According to Sabrina Lopez, a volunteer with Catholic Community Services, the families currently at the bus station were caught along the Douglas corridor.

Garcia noted that the family units, most often women with their children, are also screened for health issues by Border Patrol agents.

"At this time, I have insufficient information to fully assist the extent of the potential public health threat posed by the families in transit," Garcia. "However, I believe the risk is low."

Garcia said that the Health Department would continue to "monitor the situation very closely."

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