Border Patrol has never vaccinated the migrant children it apprehends. Doctors say it’s time for that to change.

A Guatemalan migrant recently released from federal detention sits with his three-year-old daughter at a bus depot on June 11, 2019, in McAllen, Texas.

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A Guatemalan migrant recently released from federal detention sits with his three-year-old daughter at a bus depot on June 11, 2019, in McAllen, Texas.
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Loren Elliott/AFP/Getty Images

  • The Customs and Border Protection agency’s practice of not vaccinating migrant children in its custody has drawn backlash in recent weeks.
  • A team of Harvard and Johns Hopkins medical experts wrote an August 1 letter to Congress arguing that CBP should vaccinate the children ahead of flu season to prevent more deaths.
  • CBP says it has never offered vaccinations due to the complexity of such a program and its limited staff; instead, the Department of Health and Human Services typically vaccinates unaccompanied children in the shelter system once they enter that agency’s custody.
  • But six migrant children have died in US custody within the last year – three of whom were sickened in part by the flu.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

As flu season approaches in the United States, medical experts who are worried about the welfare of migrant children at the US-Mexico border are urging immigration authorities to vaccinate kids immediately after they’re taken into custody.

Their demands come after six migrant children died within the last year from medical complications. Three of those children were sickened in part by the flu, autopsy reports show.

Though the US government does, indeed, vaccinate unaccompanied migrant children, it doesn’t happen immediately after they arrive, and it’s not done by Customs and Border Protection personnel.

Instead, children are given vaccines after they’re transferred into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, according to the department’s health and safety policies. The children stay in HHS-operated shelters until they’re matched with a parent or sponsor and then released.

A CBP spokesperson confirmed to Insider that the agency “has never offered vaccinations and this is not a new policy.”

Read more: ‘We’ve seen this coming’: Why migrant children are dying in Border Patrol custody

CBP says vaccination programs are too complex for their limited medical staff to handle

Migrants are seen outside the U.S. Border Patrol McAllen Station in a makeshift encampment in McAllen, Texas, U.S., May 15, 2019.

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Migrants are seen outside the U.S. Border Patrol McAllen Station in a makeshift encampment in McAllen, Texas, U.S., May 15, 2019.
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Loren Elliot / Reuters

In a separate statement, the agency said there are a number of reasons for that – namely that children are not supposed to spend extended periods of time in their custody, and that vaccination programs are too vast and complex for the limited staff on hand.

CBP currently employs just 200 “medical personnel” to cover the entire US-Mexico border – up from just 20 a year ago, the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson added that how the agency handles migrants with the flu depends on their condition; some are treated on-site by CBP medical staff, and others are taken to local medical clinics.

“In general, due to the short term nature of CBP holding and the complexities of operating vaccination programs, neither CBP nor its medical contractors administer vaccinations to those in our custody,” the spokesperson said.

Migrant children in Border Patrol custody often have the flu or other illnesses

U.S. Border Patrol agents take Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation.

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U.S. Border Patrol agents take Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation.
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Getty Images/John Moore

Doctors are saying that since migrant children have been spending longer periods of time in Border Patrol stations in recent months, now is the time to start immunizing the children.

The border facilities have been intensely scrutinized after reports emerged that children were being detained for days or weeks on end in tight quarters and unhygienic conditions, often with other sick children nearby.

Read more: The children who have been detained in appalling conditions at the border could bear scars from the experience for life, experts say

One lawyer who visited the facilities in June told INSIDER that he and his colleagues spoke with roughly 15 children who said they’d caught the flu at some point during their detention.

“Poor conditions at the facilities may be amplifying the spread of influenza and other infectious diseases, increasing health risks to children,” a team of Harvard and Johns Hopkins medical professionals said in an August 1 letter to Congress.

The influx of migrants that overwhelmed border officials has gone down slightly

Migrants are seen outside the U.S. Border Patrol McAllen Station in a makeshift encampment in McAllen, Texas, U.S., May 15, 2019.

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Migrants are seen outside the U.S. Border Patrol McAllen Station in a makeshift encampment in McAllen, Texas, U.S., May 15, 2019.
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Reuters/Loren Elliott

CBP officials defended the conditions in the border facilities largely by arguing that it was facing an influx of migrant families arriving at the border in droves, overwhelming Border Patrol agents and their ability to quickly process them. In May, more than 144,000 migrants were apprehended at the US-Mexico border – a 12-year high.

But that figure has dropped off significantly since then, with 82,000 migrants apprehended in July.

The doctors pressed Congress to investigate the deaths of all six children who died in custody within the last year, and accused the Department of Homeland Security and HHS of failing to follow best medical practices when it comes to handling young children.

“With so many lives at risk, these issues are worthy of congressional investigation. Another influenza season is around the corner, and there are other types of infectious diseases that pose a threat to detained populations,” the doctors wrote in their letter. “Timely action is critical.”