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A group of doctors from across the country marched on Border Patrol stations in San Diego this week. They want to vaccinate detained migrants against the flu, but that is against the rules set by Customs and Border Protection. Max Rivlin-Nadler of Member Station KPBS reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Do not hesitate.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Let us vaccinate.
MAX RIVLIN-NADLER, BYLINE: The group is called Doctors for Camp Closure, which advocates for better health care for migrants. More than 30 doctors marched to the San Diego sector's Border Patrol headquarters with 120 doses of flu vaccine. The group had asked in writing months ago to be allowed to vaccinate detainees before flu season but was denied by CBP. San Diego-based Dr. Julie Sierra has been providing health care for migrants on both sides of the border - in Tijuana and in San Diego - for the past year.
JULIE SIERRA: So we're completely ready. The minute they say yes, we're ready to go in and give a hundred. Flu vaccinations, we have everything we need - consent forms, information forms in multiple languages. We have people that can give the vaccinations. It's just - they just have to say yes.
RIVLIN-NADLER: Border Patrol does not offer vaccinations for its detainees. In a statement to NPR, Border Patrol stressed that it has never been a CBP practice to administer vaccines. And this is not a new policy. On Twitter, the Department of Homeland Security account called the doctors radical political activists. In November, a letter from the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to members of Congress recommended that Border Patrol begin flu vaccinations.
Over the past year, three detained migrant children have died from the flu while in Border Patrol custody in Texas and New Mexico. Border Patrol maintains that they only aim to hold people for 72 hours, and vaccinations are infeasible. Marie DeLuca is an emergency room doctor in New York who came down to take part in the vaccinations and protest in San Diego this week. She was skeptical about Border Patrol's reasoning.
MARIE DELUCA: As a law enforcement agency, they're choosing to detain people in crowded conditions, which means that they're actually placing people in a situation where infectious disease is more likely to spread. So they're actually creating this problem.
RIVLIN-NADLER: A report this week from the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties and San Diego State University looked at conditions inside Border Patrol facilities in California. Researchers interviewed 350 adults who had recently been released from Border Patrol detention. Professor Jill Esbenshade is a co-author of the report, which found the Border Patrol does not comply with its own standards of treatment, which were adopted in 2015.
JILL ESBENSHADE: They say that everybody should have a medical screening. That, as far as we could tell, did not happen, at least not by medical personnel. So two-thirds of adults were never screened by medical personnel. And 43 percent of children never saw medical personnel.
RIVLIN-NADLER: On top of that, Esbenshade says, detainees reported deeply unsanitary conditions.
ESBENSHADE: There were widespread reports of contagious diseases, of dirty surfaces, of vomit, diarrhea, bodily fluids on the floor. And we also had reports that, often, immigration officers wear masks, but the immigrants themselves are never given masks.
RIVLIN-NADLER: During this week's protests along the border, four doctors who came from across the country to offer vaccinations were arrested. But local doctors pledged to use the 120 flu vaccine doses they brought for inoculating migrants on both sides of the border. For NPR News, I'm Max Rivlin-Nadler in San Diego.
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