On The Border, Medical Volunteers Provide Care To Newly-Arrived Migrant Families

Apr 16, 2019

Large numbers of migrant families continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Many arrive in need of medical care; some become sick while they’re held in government custody. In southern New Mexico, volunteer doctors and nurses are stepping up to treat these newly-arrived patients.


At the Holy Cross Catholic Retreat Center, a nine-year-old boy is undergoing a medical evaluation. He sits at a corner table in the cafeteria - a makeshift medical clinic - and swings his Spider-Man sneakers as a nurse tries to coax a thermometer under his tongue.

The boy traveled to the U.S. from Guatemala with his mother and older sister; we’re not using their names, to protect their privacy. They spent a week in government custody, then got released to the retreat center. They’ll stay here for a night or two, then join family in the northeast.

Eugene Marciniak and Barbara Clarke, a volunteer doctor and nurse, check the boy’s vitals. They think he has a mild case of the flu. Clarke pours him some medicine: thick orange syrup. He gulps it down and grimaces at the taste as his mother laughs.

Marciniak and Clarke examine the boy’s sister, who has a cracked, possibly infected tooth, and his mother. They send the family off with a few doses of medicine and instructions to wake someone at the center if the boy’s flu symptoms get worse during the night. Then they call over the next family, waiting to be examined.

Similar scenes are playing out across southern New Mexico and west Texas. Federal officials say more than 100,000 migrants were taken into custody in March, the highest monthly total in more than a decade. Most are families fleeing violence, poverty or political instability and seeking asylum. They turn themselves in to immigration officials, spend several days or even a week in government holding facilities, then get released to shelters and churches like Holy Cross - where volunteer healthcare providers are waiting.

“We just check them in, we assess them, we get the history,” says Marciniak. “Our main goal is to make sure 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 State is. And to be sure they’re not so sick that they would need to be evaluated in an emergency room. Because what we can do is very limited.”

Some migrants arrive at the border in need of medical treatment, after long and treacherous journeys; others become sick while they’re in government custody. Dehydration and routine colds are common.

“Tonight it was mostly kids with respiratory illnesses,” Marciniak says.


Holy Cross has been taking in migrants - and providing medical exams - for several years. But as a growing number of families cross the U.S.-Mexico border, more churches are stepping up - a dozen, in Doña Ana County. Some don’t have enough space for a makeshift exam room, so the New Mexico Department of Health is providing a mobile medical van, on loan from Santa Fe. It makes the rounds among several shelters, and it’s staffed by volunteers, though the state pays for a driver.

“There’s a need for the immigrants to be seen so some of us are doing the best we can do with limited resources and over-the-counter meds,” says Clarke. “But it feels very good to be able to help, even in a limited capacity.”

She stands by a table, loaded with those over-the-counter medications: cough syrup, pain relievers, Pedialyte. The final patients have been sent on their way. Now, she and Marciniak take stock of the supplies and make a list of what they might need for next time.

“We need some form of children’s chewable acetaminophen or Tylenol,” Clarke says, scribbling down a note.

Clarke paid for some medical supplies out of pocket; others were donated by church members. The federal government doesn’t pay for this medical care. It’s the local community donating time and supplies, trying to meet a growing need along this stretch of the border.