top of page
Group 135.png

Blog Post

Tijuana Part 3 | Dr. Ann Colbert

Working At a Migrant Clinic at the Border

Yesterday held another unprecedented moment. On a road parallel to the border. In an Uber driven by Jorge. Seated to my right in the cramped back seat – a scared mother from Venezuela cradling her desperately ill two year old. To my left – the ugly steel slatted wall. The slogans, the op-eds, the tweets coming to life before my eyes. Life imitating art.

Taking the half hour journey (short only for me) from the little boy’s folded blanket to Tijuana General Hospital, I recalled my distress when I once rushed my own daughter to the ER. Fear, confusion, sickness filled the air while I struggled not to further smother it with tears.

At the shelter, there had been a heated discussion about the baby going to hospital. Loud voices. Distress. Interrupting the Sunday morning meal preparations. People coming. A crowd formed. The mother crying. And I could not understand why it was so hard to decide. The child was very sick – all agreed. Only later I learned why for the delay. All these vulnerable people, some family, some not, were worried that going to the hospital would result in separation. Or maybe only the mother worried and the others were reassuring her. Afraid of never seeing her parents again or her husband. Because she was without papers. Lost during a trek thru the jungle. Imagine overcoming so many barriers to seeking medical treatment – language, fear of deportation, incarceration. Even when your child has a temperature of 104 degrees ( 40 degreesCelsius). And you yourself are only sixteen years old. Fleeing from a collapsing country. {According to the UN, more than 3 million people have left Venezuela since the economic crisis began in 2014.

Fear, confusion, sickness filled the air while I struggled not to further smother it with tears.

On a lighter note, I am determined to learn more Spanish. As we waited at the hospital, I explained to the mother this was my first time at Tijuana General. The translator looked at me quizzically. “Really, your cousin came to this hospital?” Why are some Spanish words so close in pronunciation but distant in meaning. Like primo ( cousin ) and primera ( first ). And hombre (man) and hambre (hungry). “Hambre, hambre” said the gentleman I passed in the street this morning. As do many patients in the clinic for whom a dozen granola bars is an important therapeutic intervention.

Many high points stand out from this last week and one regrettably low point. First, the highs. I went into San Diego one day last week. Of course, the contrast in settings is phenomenal. Truly the US appears to be the nation of plenty. {Trump’s latest efforts to prevent ” forum shopping by economic migrants” – a supposed growing trend of refuge-seekers to attempt to reach their most desired destination rather than stay in the first place that provides a safe haven. I suppose he is speaking of those who have no choice but to wait in Tijuana (the murder capital of Mexico, which is a country that broke its own record for homicides last year- over 28,000). Or those who have family in the US and wish to be reunited.

I went to an art exhibit – WonderSpaces- where one room contained 10 sewing machines lined up and programmed to produce a light and sound display. It was rather phenomenal but at first I mistook the sound for the shuffling foot beats of a military parade. I also went to Chicano Park. See the inscription and part of the mural in the photo on this page. Definitely worth a trip to San Diego just to see this testament to immigrants.

On the way back to Tijuana, I arranged to attend the “Lights for Liberty” rally and march. Coalition to Close the Concentration Camps. Here is their website for helpful info on what to do:

In a football (soccer) field a half mile from the border crossing, somewhere between several hundred and over a thousand people gathered, listened, then marched to the border (blocking traffic into the Outlet Mall for thirty whole minutes). I joined them and only peeled off to walk on into Mexico, where with a brief glance at my passport, I was admitted into another country. No number necessary.

Plodding along in the march, responding in unison to the chants. Watching healthy, well fed white kids don silver mylar blankets symbolically representing the refugee children in the iceboxes. I felt fulfilled, generous, maybe morally superior feeling the weight of my bulging backpack. Stuffed with cough drops, hydrocortisone cream, coloring books, baggies for medications- all for the migrants. As I said that was a high. Security was omnipresent as we filled the streets but I heard and saw more honks and thumbs ups than derision.

How best to help? Funny how people’s ideas vary. In Tacoma, the same day as the rally, an “activist” threw incendiary objects at an ICE detention center. Targeting the empty vehicles that transport deportees. Hoping to cause a shake up, a delay in the whole sad process. A good man who knew he would die, said his friends. And he did. Like the wise Cameroonian said, ” desperate times lead to desperate actions”.

Oh yes, the low point. I vehemently regret what I did but now I see and agree ICE and Customs and Border Patrol are not equipped to handle the influx of refugees and asylum seekers. So the answer isn’t to continue to “battle the flow”, instead find the resources to handle the work. Hire professionals, hire trauma informed counselors, hire doctors, nurses and others who can vaccinate new immigrants, spend money on primary care globally so a traveler has had proper care all along the way.

Saturday at a shelter with many children I was helping a nurse at the medication table. She was counting out pills for a patient. The space was very crowded with the many tents in the background and an area only large enough for a couple folding tables for our medical clinic. The kids were all around. Playing, laughing, putting stickers on, poking and prodding. They were acting like children penned up all day in an enclosed and hot building. Finally escaping some of the angst of their situation. A girl reached for the pills and I grabbed her arm. Not hard or forcefully but emphatically. The feel of her skinny wrist lingers in my memory.

People who have migrated need gentleness. They need respect. They need benches outside the places where they wait. ( which is exactly what I found today outside our clinic in the street where patients wait for the doors to open). They don’t need an emphatic white hand grabbing them, no matter how chaotic things become. No matter how scary it is for some in the United States to watch people of different colors, religions and languages move in next door or become members of congress.


bottom of page