Sacred Heart Catholic Church Respite Center, McAllen, Texas. Aug. 9, 2016.
They walked in tired, dirty and bewildered — mothers, fathers and children seeking safety from the carnage of Central America. They had journeyed for months, coming across Mexico, crossing the Rio Grande into Texas and giving themselves up to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). They’d spent days in processing centers’ holding cells, which they call “hieleras” (Spanish for “iceboxes”) because they are so cold. These were the lucky ones!
Many families are shipped off to one of three family detention centers and locked up for a month or more until their case is heard by a judge. Because there was no more space at the detention centers, these families were released to their family sponsors in the U.S. pending a court appearance. Except for pregnant women, they all were wearing ankle monitors, a condition of release.
Sacred Heart had arranged for these families to be brought here for a shower, clean clothes and a hot meal before they traveled to their waiting sponsors. We applauded the families as they entered (a tradition at Sacred Heart), and I will never forget the expressions on their faces: gratitude, relief, tears. We had tears in our eyes as well.
I was there with an AAP delegation to see the conditions for families and unaccompanied minors. The delegation included President-elect Fernando Stein, M.D., FAAP; Associate Executive Director Judy Dolins; Alan J. Shapiro, M.D., FAAP, who runs a program for unaccompanied minors coming to New York City; James L. Lukefahr, M.D., FAAP, a member of the AAP Section on Child Abuse and Neglect, who recently testified to protect those in family detention centers; James H. Duffee, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP, and Julie M. Linton, M.D., FAAP, members of the Council on Community Pediatrics (COCP) Executive Committee; Marsha R. Griffin, M.D., FAAP, who cares for children on the border and who along with Dr. Linton chairs COCP’s Immigrant Health Special Interest Group; and Joyce E. Mauk, M.D., FAAP, president-elect of the Texas Pediatric Society.
We helped families choose clean clothes, get hot meals and examined children with fever and illness. One father said he’d escaped with his teenage son from El Salvador after drug gangs killed his father and brother, then threatened to kill his son if he didn’t join the gangs. He had to leave his wife and young daughter behind and was inconsolable. A mother pointed to her ankle monitor and said, “I am not a criminal! Why am I being treated like one?”
All parents were extremely loving and attentive to their children — kissing them, holding them and making sure they ate first. Ten-year-old Edgar started playing a game with me — hiding in his newly acquired shirt and responding with a beautiful smile each time I “discovered” him. His mother told me that back home Edgar was very smart in school. I’m sure Edgar will succeed here and contribute to the richness of our country.
This visit was part of the Academy’s ongoing efforts to help these children and families. Stay tuned for reports from meetings with officials in Washington, a return visit to the CBP processing center, a new policy statement on immigrant child health and advocacy for these families as part of the Academy’s Presidential Transition Plan.
Though it’s been weeks since I left the border, the border will never leave me. You see, I come from a family of immigrants, some legal, some not. My mother was an unaccompanied minor who at age 11 came from Eastern Europe to New York all by herself. My favorite aunt and uncle came here illegally, one sneaking in from Canada, the other from Cuba. And in the late 1970s, my cousins came here from the Soviet Union. These families tug at my heartstrings.
I recently took a visiting family to the Statue of Liberty and had a chance to read Emma Lazarus’ words up close. Though the poem is well-known, it’s particularly touching to read it at the port of entry of immigrants to our great country. While at the Texas border, I imagined the words posted in Spanish at Sacred Heart or perhaps on the border fence itself: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”