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Why Children Keep Getting Sick At Detention, Processing Centers

Texas Tribune

The recent death of a Guatemalan child after a flu outbreak at the Customs and Border Protection Centralized Processing Center in McAllen is unsurprising, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Dr. Julie Linton is the co-chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Immigrant Health Special Interest Group. She said processing facilities and detention centers are no place for children.

Linton said the Ursula Central Processing Center, which is the largest in the nation, is the type of facility that is a haven for infectious diseases like flu or tuberculosis and infestations like scabies.

"When you enclose people in close quarters and large spaces, it's much more difficult to control the spread of illness,” Linton said. “I think what we also know, however, is that we have children who are presenting and asking for medical attention — we have families who are asking for medical evaluations for their children — and they're being evaluated, and then after evaluation they're being sent back to processing centers."

Linton said a sick child is not going to do well in those conditions.

"I'm a pediatrician, and I care for sick children all the time, and I would never suggest, in healing, a child return to a cold concrete floor, covered by a silver, mylar blanket which is really more of a sheet, to heal from their illness, and certainly not in a setting where they're exposed to constant stress," Linton said.

16-year-old Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez died in federal custody last week after coming down with the flu, and he's the fifth migrant child to die in custody since late last year. A sixth child died soon after he and his mother were released from custody.  

Linton and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that CBP begin using medical professionals trained in diagnosing and treating children to evaluate all of the kids in their custody. They also recommend to start training every border agent in how to recognize illness in children when they pick them up and take them in.

"I would further recommend that as soon as possible children are released from processing and allowed to continue on their journeys to communities, ideally with community-based case management, which would allow children to continue with their immigration proceedings in an environment that's much safer and conducive to their health and well being," Linton said.

The AAP has created a toolkit to help those who come into contact with immigrant children to help them get and stay healthy.

The McAllen processing center temporarily closed last week after medical staff identified 32 other migrants who were experiencing symptoms of the flu.

Bonnie Petrie can be reached at Bonnie@TPR.org and on Twitter at @kbonniepetrie.