Texas officials: Immigrant surge is a medical crisis
As top Texas officials debate how to halt a recent surge of immigrants — many of them unaccompanied minors — across the Texas-Mexico border, health officials and volunteer doctors are voicing concerns over what they say is the more serious challenge: a looming medical crisis.
During a recent visit to two detention centers that house undocumented migrant children, officials with the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) reported that conditions there posed a high risk for infectious disease outbreaks.
Meanwhile, doctors providing medical care for immigrants being released by U.S. Border Patrol ahead of their court dates say those recent detainees were not appropriately screened or treated for illness while in federal custody.
Since October, authorities in the Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley sector have detained an unprecedented 160,000 undocumented immigrants, including more than 33,500 unaccompanied minors. These immigrants were transferred to federal detention centers, where they have been held temporarily.
During a tour of detention centers in Brownsville and McAllen last week, state public health officials identified several health-related issues, including a lack of medicine for child immigrants, no comprehensive medical screenings and no testing for vaccinations or tuberculosis.
"They are just the things you'd expect from a 15-day trip through Central America," Garza said. "We're doing as much as we can with over-the-counter medicine."
Eddie Olivarez, director of the Hidalgo County Health Department, said officials there have counted five cases of chicken pox and one "concern" about potential tuberculosis among the recent detainees.
Garza said some immigrants awaiting their court dates get on buses and go as far as New York, Ohio or Florida.
"Today it's an Hidalgo County problem," he said."Tomorrow there's going to be a Houston problem."
On Monday, the Texas Medical Association called on the Obama administration and Gov. Rick Perry to help provide medical aid for the immigrants by assigning more physicians to the border to provide vaccinations and comprehensively screen all individuals coming into the country.
"This is something they could do today," said Dr. Austin King, TMA's president, who spent several days in McAllen last week. "We are able to catch some of the sicker people, but everyone needs to be screened."
Texas' Republican leadership has largely blamed the federal government for the crisis, and has directed the Texas Department of Public Safety to increase its efforts along the border with Mexico — an initiative estimated to cost$1.3 million per week. But state lawmakers are also worried about the public health concerns associated with the influx of immigrants. Republican state Sen. Jane Nelson, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said the federal government should prioritize addressing a "growing public health problem" along with its efforts to reinforce security along the state's border.
"When individuals are held in unhealthy conditions and then released into the community without proper medical attention, the health of Texans is placed at risk," Nelson said.
This story was produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News. Julian Aguilar contributed to this story.