Gila Regional Medical Center Treats Newly Arrived Migrant Patients

Feb 4, 2019

A growing number of asylum seekers are crossing the border in the remote, southwest corner of New Mexico known as the Bootheel. Some need medical attention, and regional hospitals and clinics are tasked with taking on their care.

Gila Regional Medical Center is a small, county-owned hospital in Silver City with 68 beds. It’s generally pretty quiet here - or it was, until last October. Border patrol agents started showing up at the emergency room, escorting migrants in need of medical care. They arrived with about a dozen at a time.

Peggy White is Chief Nursing Officer at the Medical Center, which is located about 140 miles from the border. “In my mind I knew something had changed, because you really have to go out of your way to come up here to Silver City,” she says. “The other hospitals are down there on I-10 and they’re easier to access. And so to see large groups come up here, it was a sign that something had changed.”

With new restrictions on asylum seekers entering the U.S., an increasing number of migrants are bypassing large ports of entry. Instead, they’re crossing the border in remote southwest New Mexico and turning themselves in at the tiny Antelope Wells port of entry or small, isolated Border Patrol stations.

Fernando Garcia is with the Border Network for Human Rights, an El Paso-based advocacy group. “Before this policy we did have people crossing in very isolated places but they were not asylum seekers,” he says.

Garcia says it used to be more common for people to cross in this part of the state hoping to go undetected.

“Now we have seen massive crossings in the middle of the desert,” he says. “I mean we’re talking about 150, 200 people crossing at a time, to turn themselves in to Border Patrol.”

Most are parents and children, and some need medical attention, especially for exhaustion, dehydration and, during cold spells, exposure.

So hospitals across the region are navigating a new challenge: treating an influx of patients who are also in government custody.

“If you had asked me a year ago how we’d handle 15 people coming in at once, it would have been sheer panic,” says Peggy White.

But the medical center has come with up strategies to quickly process and treat patients. After immigration officials showed up at the hospital unannounced twice, CEO Taffy Arias arranged a meeting with Border Patrol “to discuss, really, what their process is and what their expectations are and to let them know what our expectations were,” she says.

Now agents give the hospital a heads up before they arrive - ideally an hour’s lead time, but cell service can be spotty on the long journey to Silver City, so sometimes it’s more like 15 minutes.

“The relationship that we have now with the immigration authorities letting us know ahead of time that they’re bringing them in, we have enough lead time that we can assemble the resources need to take care of these patients,” Arias says.

Peggy White says her team had to think through several issues, like what to do with patients’ medical records.

“The records belong to the patient no matter who they are,” she says. “And so we can’t just hand them off to anybody. It’s little details like that that always come back to complicate things.”

The hospital gives each patient a copy of their medical records - in their native language - then seals a second copy in an envelope, for their healthcare providers back at Border Patrol facilities.

Meanwhile, immigration officials have become a familiar site in the hospital. They have to accompany the migrants, but can’t be in the room during medical screenings or treatments.

The medical center will be reimbursed for this care - by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The agency spends more than $250 million on detainee healthcare each year, according to a spokesperson.

For now, Taffy Arias says her hospital is well-equipped to take in migrant patients.

“Getting 15 patients at once is always a little bit taxing, but we have the capability of take care of even more than that,” she says.

But some medical providers are feeling more of a strain. Searchlight New Mexico reports Hidalgo County Emergency Medical Services is struggling to meet these new demands. The county manager sent out an urgent request for more resources.

In the meantime, Gila Regional Medical Center recently hosted a consortium for healthcare providers and government agencies in the region, to figure out best practices for treating detained migrants.

“We don’t judge our care based on any political stance,” says Taffy Arias. “It is immaterial to us. What it is important to us is every patient that comes through our doors is important.”

Arias views her obligation to these patients as both legal and moral.