December 31, 2019, Tijuana, Mexico – As a nurse practitioner, Sister Patricia Erickson, OP, sees special patients every Saturday: people seeking asylum in the United States, but staying in shelters in Tijuana, Mexico, while awaiting their asylum hearing. She is among many health care workers and other concerned individuals who volunteer their time with Refugee Health Alliance.
Saturdays find Sister Pat and other volunteers gathered at a coffee shop in a strip mall on the U.S. side of the border. Here, they organize themselves into two teams, making sure that each team has a group of medical providers, people to help set up and work in the clinics, and others who can serve as translators. Each group offers health care in three shelters that day – which can last from 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. or even later.
Sister Pat said that, in a sense, her Saturdays in Tijuana are all different because of the variety of people she sees and the illnesses or injuries being treated. “The typical part is that we go there and set up however we can,” she said. “Some shelters have a larger space for us, so we can set up tables and have people actually triage the migrants who need health care. In others, we just have to make room because it’s so crowded.”
Many migrants come with ailments such as colds or coughs, Sister Pat said, and others with chronic ailments such as diabetes or high blood pressure. “Other times they come with a complaint that they’ve had for years and never saw anybody about it, so we have to start from the beginning to see what the issue is and get them to a particular resource,” such as medications or X-rays.
Treating the migrants’ ailments sometimes gives Sister Pat and the other volunteers the opportunity to hear the personal stories of their patients – but only if they care to share. “Many times they tell us about when they arrived at the Border Patrol and how they were treated,” and about their temporary stay in U.S. detention centers before being sent to Tijuana to await their asylum hearings.
“Pretty much the stories about the Border Patrol and detention facilities are the same,” Sister Pat said. “[The migrants] are just not well treated at all . . . The condition is the worst ever. It’s so cold in those facilities and they don’t have adequate care for what they need.”
Through her volunteer work at the Tijuana shelters since May 2019, Sister Pat has come to know some of her patients. “Especially in some of the larger shelters, I get to know the people because they have sometimes been there since October and might have to wait [for their hearings] until January, February, even March,” she explained. “I like seeing the same people over and over, even though it’s sad that they have to wait so long.”
Hope in a Difficult Situation
In spite of the long wait and the difficult conditions they endured before coming to the shelters, Sister Pat sees hope in the migrants. “I think they see hope in that at least they’ve made it this far alive – when you consider where they come from and the distance from the Central American countries, even from different parts of Mexico,” she said. “They do have an appointment at the border to ask for asylum or to ask for entry. They are pretty well cared for in the shelters – as well as they can be” by the non-profit and church groups and individuals who run the shelters. “I see hope in the people themselves because they’re looking for a better life for themselves and their children,” she said. “If they can do that, it gives me hope that eventually it might be better for them.”
Sister Pat expressed gratitude for the opportunity to serve migrants through her work with Refugee Health Alliance – and with the opportunity during the week to serve at shelters for immigrants in San Diego, California. “I’ve wanted to do this for a long, long time and it materialized,” she said. “I’m so grateful for the support and love from the Sisters and Associates, who are really here with me, because I couldn’t do it alone.”
Working at the shelters in Tijuana can be difficult and even dangerous, Sister Pat said. But she added that people can be involved in helping immigrants and refugees in a number of ways.
- Make your voices heard, whether through sending emails or writing to people in Washington about the migrant situation or the immigrant situation in general. “The biggest way is to make our voices heard and say that this whole system we have is not right. It’s inhumane, but [we can] try to correct that and make it more humane,” Sister Pat said.
- Give to organizations that serve migrants and immigrants, such as the Refugee Health Alliance.
- If possible, volunteer at some of the shelters for immigrants on the U.S. side of the border, such as La Frontera Migrant Shelter in Laredo, Texas; Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas; and the McAllen Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. https://www.lmtonline.com/local/article/Laredo-shelter-filled-to-capacity-with-migrants-13630879.php
Read more about the work of Refugee Health Alliance in the December 18, 2019 issue of America Magazine.