Dr. Eugene Marciniak recently examined about a dozen patients at a Catholic retreat center in Las Cruces, N.M. He set up shop at a corner table in the cafeteria and called families over one by one: a mother with belly pain, a child with a low-grade fever, a teen girl with a cracked and possibly infected tooth. They had just been released from government custody and were staying at the center for a night or two before joining relatives in other parts of the United States.
“We just check them in; we assess them; we get the history,” Marciniak, a volunteer, says. “Our main goal is to make sure that they’re not really acutely ill, that they’re gonna be able to travel in the next couple days wherever their final destination in the United States is. And to be sure they’re not so sick that they would need to be evaluated in an emergency room.”
Similar scenes are playing out across southern New Mexico, where a growing number of shelters and churches are taking in migrant families seeking asylum. Some migrants arrive in need of medical care. Others become sick while they’re in government custody. Volunteer medics are stepping in to provide care once those families are released. They do their best with limited resources, sometimes conducting exams in makeshift clinics and paying for medical supplies out of pocket. The New Mexico Department of Health is also sending out a mobile medical van.
Last December, two migrant children died in government custody after being held in New Mexico. Since then, immigration officials have strengthened screenings for minors in custody. But volunteer medics say there’s still more need, once they’ve been released.
“We have private rooms; we have an examination table. I have medications in cupboards and the equipment I need,” says volunteer physician Dr. John Andazola, who works out of a mobile medical van. “So what this brings to me is a more safe, clinical experience and more privacy for the patients.”
Andazola has been volunteering since 2014. He says most patients have routine colds or mild dehydration. But without screenings, “we would miss the really sick kids. If we miss those kids, they’re at risk of serious illness. Death.”
A Guatemalan migrant named Sergio recently visited the medical van with his 2-year-old son, Dylan. He asked that we not use their last name because of their precarious immigration status. Sergio thinks his son became sick in a holding facility, where they spent two days. It was cold there, he says, and agents took away their blankets. By the time they arrived at a shelter, Dylan had a runny nose and slight fever. Andazola gave him some cold medicine and two grape-flavored rehydration packets.
Volunteer Freida Adams coordinates the doctors and nurses in southern New Mexico. She recently left her job at the state health department to do this volunteer work full time. Adams says the care her team provides families like Sergio and Dylan goes beyond basic medicine.
As soon as these families arrive at a shelter or church, “we start handing out water, we start handing out snacks,” she says. “Because the thing they need the most is a place to sit, to set their babies down. They’ve been carrying their babies for 2,000 miles, and … many times they hold that child constantly. So to be able to set your child down and rest your arms is a big thing.”
The federal government isn’t paying for these humanitarian services. Volunteers often buy supplies themselves, mostly over-the-counter medications like cold syrup and pain relievers.
The New Mexico Department of Health is chipping in gas and a driver for the mobile medical van, which it’s leasing from Santa Fe County. In total, the service costs about $1,000 per month, according to spokesperson David Morgan. He says the department could use many more volunteers.
“I certainly understand how divided we are as a community, as a country, about the subject of immigration,” Morgan says. “But at the end of the day, it’s important to us to be able to not lose sight of the fact that these are people who need help.”
Morgan says the medical van is one way the state can meet the growing need along this stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border.