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El Paso Pediatrician Discusses Medical Needs Of Migrant Children In Detention Centers


A temporary detention center for unaccompanied minors in Tornillo, Texas, plans to close by the end of the month. This follows the deaths of two Guatemalan children in U.S. custody at the border. They were seeking asylum. Concerns remain that migrants, particularly children, remain at risk in U.S. detention.

Dr. Carlos Gutierrez is a pediatrician in El Paso. He volunteers regularly at shelters near Tornillo. Migrants are placed there after they've been released from detention. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.

CARLOS GUTIERREZ: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Can you talk about what kind of condition some of these migrant travelers are in, especially children, once they're released from detention and enter these shelters?

GUTIERREZ: We go to the shelters, and we check out the individuals who need immediate care - people who may be dehydrated, severe diarrhea, pneumonia, bronchitis, whatever. And we evaluate them. And we have some basic medical equipment. So we try to get these individuals as soon as they can get off the bus so that we can make sure that they're not so acutely ill that they have to be shuffled to a local emergency room or hospitalized.

CORNISH: You mentioned dehydration. Are there other kinds of illnesses that you're seeing develop? And is this something that's happening because of the travel in the trip or while being held in U.S. custody?

GUTIERREZ: Well, for the most part it's because of the long trip that these individuals have undertaken. And by the time they're put into custody by the federal government, by the Border Patrol, they're already pretty sick. And the Border Patrol is not trained to pick up medical signs and symptoms of somebody who's acutely ill. And especially in kids, kids can look OK initially, and within hours, they can become deathly ill. So it's important for a professional health care provider, be it a pediatrician, an adult physician, to be able to recognize these things.

CORNISH: Now, I understand that back in 2014, when President Obama warned of a humanitarian crisis at the southern border, you provided medical screenings for those who were in Border Patrol custody. Is this something that you would volunteer to do again? Is it something that you at all have been asked to do?

GUTIERREZ: When the immigrants started coming in again in October, I gathered a group of about over 100 providers. We were willing to go in and provide care for these individuals early on, pro bono, as we did in 2014. And we were not allowed. We ended up setting up our little medical facilities at the different shelters around town.

CORNISH: Do you think the administration is making changes that will make a difference?

GUTIERREZ: Yes. The administration has finally made sure that while they are in Border Patrol custody, that there will be access to good medical care. But once those individuals are released from custody and they are transferred to the shelters, their responsibility is completely gone. And that's where we as the community - physicians and health care providers - have taken over.

CORNISH: As we mentioned earlier, you have been doing this work certainly back to 2014. When you look at the condition of the migrants you're seeing now, what does it tell you about the difficulty of the trip, of the process?

GUTIERREZ: We'll see them with blisters on their feet. They literally hiked the whole way from Central America all the way to the U.S. These individuals go through hell just to try to get away from the horrific experience that they have endured in their home countries.

CORNISH: Dr. Carlos Gutierrez is a pediatrician in El Paso, Texas. Thank you for speaking with us.

GUTIERREZ: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BAD PLUS' "ANTHEM FOR THE EARNEST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.