U.S. officials deny access to doctors seeking to give flu shots to migrant children

Doctors and other healthcare providers from Doctors for Camp Closure stand outside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in San Ysidro, Calif., hoping to get access to the facility to give flu shots to detained migrants on Monday.
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A group of doctors, who last month pressured U.S. Customs and Border Protection to allow them to give flu vaccines to detained migrant children, have now taken their fight to the driveway of a detention facility in San Ysidro, Calif., and said they are not leaving until they get approval.

About 40 people, including medical doctors licensed to practice medicine in California, marched Monday from Vista Terrace Neighborhood Park to the detention facility, calling for CBP to let them in or let the children out to participate in a free mobile clinic they set up outside. They were joined by at least an additional dozen medical students and supporters.

Three children died from the flu while in federal immigration custody during the past year.


Holding signs saying “No more flu deaths” and “Children don’t belong in cages,” the doctors chanted and sang. Some of them spoke about their own personal journey to the United States as migrant children in the country illegally.

Though the agency did not respond directly to the doctors’ demonstration, a CBP spokeswoman replied to a media inquiry, and the agency issued a response to a Nov. 5 letter the medical professionals sent to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security requesting access to administer flu vaccines.

Dr. Bonnie Arzuaga stands with a table of flu shot supplies Monday as doctors and other healthcare providers from Doctors for Camp Closure were hoping to give flu shots to detained migrants at the Chula Vista Border Patrol Station in San Ysidro, Calif.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“It has never been a CBP practice to administer vaccines and this not a new policy,” the official statement read in part. “Individuals in CBP custody should generally not be held for longer than 72 hours in either CBP hold rooms or holding facilities. ... As a law enforcement agency, and due to the short-term nature of CBP holding and other logistical challenges, operating a vaccine program is not feasible.”

Dr. Mario Mendoza, a retired anesthesiologist, said it would take less than half an hour to administer the vaccines to more than 100 children via the free mobile flu clinic they set up directly outside the CBP facility.

“We have the team here. We have the vaccines. It would not take 72 hours to do,” said Mendoza, adding that denying children the basic healthcare being offered was intentionally cruel and inhumane.


“What I can say is we are not leaving here until they let us enter. We are doctors. We are against death and we are for humanity,” he said.

Mendoza had a personal connection to the cause. He told the group how he fled El Salvador with his mother and brother, after their lives were threatened because of his mother’s work advocating for the rights of teachers. First the family asked for political asylum in the United States, but they were denied, he said.

“What is a mother to do? She’s not going to leave her children to die. Like CBP is doing here. They are passively letting children die from influenza, something that can easily be prevented,” said Mendoza.

Raquel Perez, a UC Davis medical student, volunteered her time along with doctors and other healthcare providers from Doctors for Camp Closure hoping to give flu shots to detained migrants at the Chula Vista Border Patrol Station in San Ysidro, Calif., on Monday.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“My heart hurts a lot for the immigrants that are here, both the adults and the children. I came here undocumented from El Salvador in 1981. We ran for 12 hours through the desert. We survived only by the grace of God and the strength of my mother,” said Mendoza, who said he went on to have a successful career as a medical professional and then founded the organization Life Undocumented, a group that collects and publishes immigrant stories and data.

Mendoza wasn’t the only doctor at the San Ysidro demonstration who shared his personal journey from migrant child to medical doctor.


Dr. Sirac Cardoza, who practices family medicine and just completed his residency at Brooklyn Hospital Center, said he crossed the border as a 7-year-old boy, fleeing Nicaragua.

“My mother literally carried me on her shoulders through the river. And 17 days in a desert. Walking, with very little food. I don’t know how we made it,” Cardoza said.

After that, Cardoza said he promised his mother he would spend his life helping people and he became a doctor.

He said he imagines what the children being detained must be feeling.

“Fear. Fear. I can’t imagine being ripped away from my mother. I remember holding onto her for dear life. ... It was dark. There were bushes everywhere. And I just remember seeing the clothes of people, the wet clothes they left behind,” he said, about when he crossed into the United States.

Cardoza said he hopes the groups protesting, including Doctors for Camp Closure, Families Belong Together and Never Again Action, can raise awareness, appealing to mothers and others who care for children.

Doctors and other healthcare providers from Doctors for Camp Closure stand outside the Chula Vista Border Patrol Station in San Ysidro, Calif., hoping to give flu shots to detained migrants on Monday.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“Everyone has held a child with a fever in their hands and to not provide medical care is very, very cruel,” he said. “The autopsy report that one of the doctors read here said, ‘He had a fever so they told him to just lay on the ground cause it’s cold,’ Really? Would you like for your child to just lay on the ground in a jail cell when they have a fever? That is really very cruel.”

Last month, a group of seven doctors from across the United States sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security calling the agency’s refusal to vaccinate migrant children “cause for significant alarm.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended last year that CBP vaccinate detained migrants against the flu virus, but CBP rejected the idea.

The doctors noted in their letter that the flu mortality rate among migrant children in federal immigration custody was nine times higher than the general population last year.

Among those who sent the letter is Dr. Bonnie Arzuaga, a Boston pediatrician. On Monday, she led the team of doctors prepared to administer flu vaccines to the outside gate of the CBP facility, waving to agents who were parked inside the gates.

Dr. Bonnie Arzuaga tries to contact the Border Patrol as doctors and other healthcare providers from Doctors for Camp Closure were hoping to give flu shots to detained migrants at the Chula Vista Border Patrol Station in San Ysidro, Calif. on Monday.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“We waved them down and they backed away slowly rather than approaching us. So we went over to their doorbell, rang it a couple times and nobody is answering,” Arzuaga said. “So what we’re going to do now is we’re going to just set up our clinic here in their driveway, and we’re not going to leave until somebody comes out and talks to us.”

Arzuaga said the group wasn’t certain how many children were being detained inside the facility, but they had confirmed that migrant children have been detained there and often for longer than the 72-hour policy outlined in the CBP’s statement.

The group said it plans on continuing its demonstrations through the week or until it gets a meeting with CBP.

Three youths — ages 2, 6 and 16 — died of influenza in federal custody in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. The deaths came as the number of migrant children and families in custody reached a record high, some held for weeks before they were released or transferred to long-term detention facilities run by federal agencies that do provide vaccinations.

The number of migrant family members and children arriving at the border has decreased each of the last six months after spiking last year, but still remains higher than in the past.

Last December, after two Guatemalan migrant children died in Border Patrol custody in the El Paso area, one from flu-related illness, Border Patrol officials promised to increase medical screenings, particularly for children.


They expanded their team of 20 medical staff on the border to more than 250, a Border Patrol spokeswoman said, ensuring most facilities in the busiest stretches of the border — including Texas’ Rio Grande Valley and El Paso — had 24-hour medical staff to screen arriving migrants.

But young migrants continued to die in federal custody. After 16-year-old Guatemalan migrant Carlos Hernandez died of the flu May 21, Border Patrol temporarily closed the south Texas detention center where he had been held and quarantined three dozen other sick migrants.

“Flu deaths are preventable and large-scale vaccination is not unprecedented,” said Dr. Marie DeLuca, with the Doctors for Camp Closure group.

Fry writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.