Border Patrol agents along the southern border have taken 21,000 sick or injured illegal immigrants to hospitals since January, according to Kevin McAleenan, acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Agents have spent 250,000 hours—the equivalent of 28 years—at hospitals with sick individuals.
“We are being faced with a younger and sicker population this year than we’ve ever seen at the border before,” McAleenan said during a hearing in front of the House Oversight and Reform Committee on July 18.
“We see a lot of communicable disease, a lot of severe illnesses. In some cases, we’ve had immediate surgery required for congenital defects—they actually came to the border to have surgery.”
Border Patrol agents usually ask immediately if anyone has a health issue, when encountering individuals who have just crossed the border. And in some high-traffic areas, such as the Rio Grande Valley in southeast Texas, a Border Patrol paramedic is on hand.
The Border Patrol has been swamped with illegal border crossings for months, with May being the high point so far this year, at 4,200 apprehensions every day on average.
Of the 132,000 apprehensions in May, more than 72 percent were unaccompanied children or individuals making up a family unit.
Border Patrol has struggled to deal with the influx, with 40 percent to 60 percent of agents being redirected to humanitarian care at any given time.
Border facilities—built decades ago to handle single males from Mexico for a few hours—quickly became overcrowded.
In El Paso, Texas, one facility that has a capacity of 125 people was overloaded with 900 people on May 8, according to an Inspector General report.
“Further limiting available space is the need to separate detainees with infectious diseases, such as chickenpox, scabies, and influenza, from each other and from the general population,” the May 30 report states.
Since January, the DHS has conducted more than 400,000 medical health interviews with illegal aliens encountered by Border Patrol, as well as 80,000 more in-depth medical assessments in custody.
The new protocol of medical screenings was implemented after the deaths of two children in Border Patrol custody in December. Guatemalans Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7, died Dec. 8 and Felipe Gomez Alonzo, 8, died the week of Christmas. Autopsy reports for both children revealed that both died from a bacterial infection that led to multiple-organ failure.
Now more than 200 health professionals have been embedded at border facilities and are screening new arrivals and providing critical triage—a 10-fold increase. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) also has 2,300 agents and officers who are trained EMTs and paramedics.
“I’m confident no law enforcement agency in the world is providing more critical life-saving care and medical support than CBP,” McAleenan said, adding that the Coast Guard and the Public Health Service are providing vital support.
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