US immigration authorities blocked doctors from giving flu vaccines to detained migrant children this week, a move that physicians say will lead to more deaths behind bars.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) refused to grant a group of doctors access to provide vaccines in San Diego on Monday despite at least three recent flu deaths of children in US immigration custody, aged two, six and 16, and growing concerns about health hazards and unsafe conditions for asylum seekers in detention.
Licensed physicians arrived at the Chula Vista border patrol station in San Ysidro prepared to operate a free flu clinic for the detained migrants, but CBP would not let them inside, claiming it was not “feasible” to provide the medical care.
“More people will die without the vaccine,” said Dr Hannah Janeway, an emergency medicine physician turned away by CBP. “There’s no doubt. They are being locked in cages in cold weather together, without any vaccination, in a year that is supposed to bring a horrible flu epidemic.”
Janeway, a Los Angeles-based doctor who also works with asylum seekers in Tijuana, said CBP had a moral obligation to provide vaccines: “Our government, who is creating these conditions and allowing them to persist, is basically saying some people’s lives are worth more than others, and it’s OK for children to die.”
For more than a month, a group of physicians has been urging the US to vaccinate migrants in custody, and in November they formally offered to set up a free pilot clinic. CBP, however, has rejected the proposal by arguing that there are logistical challenges and that because CBP operates short-term detention, a flu clinic is not feasible.
A CBP spokesman, Matthew Dyman, said in an email on Tuesday that individuals in the agency’s custody “should generally not be held for longer than 72 hours”, adding: “Every effort is made to hold detainees for the minimum amount of time required.”
Dyman said CBP did not administer vaccines but was “part of a larger system that has these processes in place”, noting that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice), which operates long-term detention, has “comprehensive medical support services”.
Government records, however, have shown that children and adults have been held in CBP custody in crowded conditions for longer than 72 hours, and lawyers representing migrants in the region have reported clients being held for weeks with little explanation.
You’re saying death is acceptable to you, and that you don’t value human lifeDanielle Deines, neonatologist
Asked about vaccines on Monday, CBP’s commissioner, Mark Morgan, told reporters he was “not a medical expert” but that CBP was “taking a hard look” at the issue to determine “what makes the most sense”.
A Department of Homeland security spokesperson criticized the doctors in a tweet on Tuesday, saying: “Of course Border Patrol isn’t going to let a random group of radical political activists show up and start injecting people with drugs.”
Doctors argued that regardless of the length of detention, CBP should be providing life-saving services, noting that it would be efficient and free for the group of volunteers to administer vaccines.
“We see this as medical negligence on the part of the US government,” said Dr Bonnie Arzuaga, co-founder of Doctors for Camp Closure, one of the groups offering services. “People are being held in close confinement and usually are under a lot of physical and emotional stress … and may be malnourished and may not have access to hygiene supplies. That puts them at risk.”
Arzuaga said the group of roughly 60 doctors and advocates were ready with 120 doses of the vaccine on Monday and prepared to operate an urgent mobile clinic. She estimated it could have taken as little as 30 minutes to complete the entire process.
“All they really needed to do was open the gate,” she said. “To be on the other side of the fence with all the resources we had available to us and to not be able to share those resources with the people who needed it most felt frustrating and disappointing.”
On Tuesday, the groups visited the San Diego border patrol headquarters to demand a meeting with officials. Some demonstrators blocked an entrance to the facility and lay on the ground, with six people ultimately arrested. Four of the people detained were doctors, according to organizers, and they were cited for “failure to comply with the lawful directions of a federal police officer” before being released.
Danielle Deines, a neonatologist working with the group, said she was able to speak with several local CBP officials on Monday who continued to express resistance.
“They are having difficulty prioritizing something like this, because they have so far dehumanized people,” she said, adding that one CBP official said something along the lines of: “‘It’s not like we can offer the flu vaccine to every Central American who comes knocking on our door.’”
“My question is, why not?” she said. “If you want to hold people in detention, you can provide people the basic flu vaccine … You’re saying death is acceptable to you, and that you don’t value human life.”
A number of Trump administration anti-immigration policies have created what lawyers say is a humanitarian crisis at the border, and migrants in detention have reported difficulties taking care of basic hygiene and medical needs. At least six migrant youths have died in immigration custody or shortly after their release.
“As medical professionals, we deem this an emergency,” said Deines, who is based in Virginia. “It is our duty to help them and stand up for them.”