Health Suffers Among Asylum Seekers in Crowded Border Shelter

Immigrants from Mexico and Central America seeking asylum in the United States frequently end up at border shelters in Tijuana, Mexico. They stay in them for weeks as they wait for the U.S. government to approve or deny their applications.

Most of the refugees get sick during their journeys due to insufficient food, a lack of clean water and poor sanitation at camps and shelters along the way. But perhaps their biggest health problem is depression and anxiety: They have suffered violence and been threatened by gangs and left behind everything they know in the world.

Volunteer health care workers from Southern California recently visited the Movimiento Juventud 2000 (Youth Movement 2000) shelter in Tijuana, and spent the day treating the migrants there. KHN’s Heidi de Marco captured the scene.

People board a bus at nighttime
Volunteer doctors, nurses and other health care professionals board the bus headed to the border town of Tijuana, Mexico. They plan to provide free health care to migrants living in shelters.

Volunteer doctors, nurses and other health care professionals board a bus in downtown Los Angeles before dawn to ride to the migrant shelter in Tijuana. They spent the day there dispensing free health care, supplies and advice to shelter inhabitants.

A man in a black jacket stands next to a wall reading "MOVIMENTO JUVENTUD 2000 Tijuana A.C"
For about 25 years, this Movimiento Juventud 2000 shelter primarily housed Mexicans deported from the United States. It recently opened its doors to help the caravan of migrants from Central America.

For about 25 years, the shelter primarily housed Mexicans deported from the United States. Its director, Jose Maria Garcia Lara, shown here, recently opened its doors to asylum seekers and other migrants fleeing violence and economic deprivation in Central America. The biggest health problem they face, Lara says, is depression: “The people who are coming here are leaving their homes. They are leaving a lifetime.”

A mutal is painted on a wall with hardhats hanging from it
A mural inside the Movimiento Juventud 2000 shelter explains the rights of migrants.

A mural inside the shelter explains the rights of the migrants dwelling there. It says they have the right to safe shelter; health care and education; freedom from discrimination; due process under the law; protection for their families; and respect for cultural diversity.

Salinas, with his friend’s baby, waits in line.
Salinas, with his friend’s baby, waits in line.

Jose Manuel Salinas, an asylum seeker at the shelter, holds his friend’s baby as he waits to be seen by a nurse. He was fighting a cough that had worsened since his arrival a month earlier. Inhabitants of the camp do not get regular health care. One doctor and two nurses visit once a week, but can spend only five or 10 minutes with each migrant in need of care.

Someone gets their blood pressure checked with a wrist monitor
Volunteer nurses check patients’ glucose levels and blood pressure.

Volunteer health workers at the shelter set up folding tables, where they offered help for both physical and psychological ailments. They provided first aid as well as pediatric and dental care, and they took glucose, blood pressure and pulse readings.

A sink stands next to the door to the women's bathroom
Migrants such as Salinas face deteriorating conditions in shelters and are more susceptible to illness there. They have little access to medical care and count on volunteer health care services.

The shelter, which houses up to 150 people, has only one bathroom for men and one for women. Conditions are cramped, making the migrants susceptible to illness if they are not sick already.

A man sits outside of a blue tent
Salinas is temporarily living in a camping tent inside the Movimiento Juventud 2000 migrant shelter. He says the lack of work and increasing violence back home left him no choice but to seek asylum in the United States.

Jose Manuel Salinas is living temporarily in a tent inside the shelter. He says he walked and hitchhiked for a month from his home in Acapulco. “You can’t live in the state of Guerrero,” says Salinas, 31. “There’s too much violence, and the truth is the salary we make isn’t enough to feed my family.”

This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.