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Trauma Felt By Immigrants At The Border Called 'Heartbreaking' – But Nothing New

Renee Dominguez for KUT
Ty Simsak joins thousands of protesters at the Texas Capitol last month for a rally against immigration policies affecting asylum seekers at the Mexico border.

There’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s happening with children separated from their parents at the Mexico border, but Austin-based Circle of Health International says much of what it sees these days is predictable and familiar.

Since 2014, the nongovernmental organization has been helping staff a clinic in McAllen that serves immigrants who’ve just been released from Border Patrol detention.

Founder and CEO Sera Bonds says the policy behind the detentions may have changed over time, but the physical and psychological problems that come with it have not. She tells KUT the problems start setting in before people even reach the border.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Bonds: Imagine you had been on a hike for two months and then you had slept on concrete floors, very close quarters, with not a lot of food or water. So we're seeing what any of us would be looking like at that point, right? Like acute respiratory stuff: coughs, colds, flus, abrasions, sprains from falling or tripping along the way, lots of late-term pregnant women trying to get here before their babies are born. And you know some chronic long-term stuff that you would see in any population: epilepsies, cerebral palsy, diabetes.

I was there two weeks ago with my husband, who's a pediatrician here in Austin, and we were staffing the clinic. There were a lot of respiratory things, a lot of pretty severe colds and flus, a lot of coughing kids, a couple of cases of chicken pox. You know, the usual stuff.

Stayton: When these families are coming across the border and they're separated and the children are sent off, they're all concentrated together –

Bonds: Exactly. It's like a daycare, just a lot of exposure at close quarters to anything that any of us would catch in those situations.

Stayton: What about psychological, emotional – how would you describe how the folks are in that regard?

Bonds: Many of us would assume that that trauma, the PTSD, was something that could be attributed to the violence that they were feeling – whether it was domestic violence or wars or whatever. But what we found was actually that it was acute traumatic events that occurred while in custody.

I mean, consider it this way: The violence that you're born into is the violence you know, and it's going to stack up on your body, you're going to have, you know, all of the hormonal and physical reactions that you would have to long-term trauma exposure.

These moms and dads and families, they set out for a better life, and there is this assumption that once they get to America, it's going to get better. So when it oftentimes gets worse or it's unknown, that is the acute trauma that actually brought on the PTSD for over 80 percent of the folks that are coming through the clinic.

There was one little boy who was about 4 and a half that my husband was seeing and he had a really bad cough, he was sitting in his mom's lap, and he was just so scared of the doctor because the doctor looked like all the other white men that he had seen in the last month that had not been very kind to him. And so we just sat and let the little boy take as much control as he could. We waited for him to tell him when he was ready. We just needed to take his temperature, you know, but he cried and he was very frightened. All that he really had to report was that he has a stomachache and a headache. But that is what anxiety and trauma look like in kids.

Stayton: So you wrote something on Circle of Health's website recently that I wanted to find out a little bit more about. You wrote, "What we've seen firsthand over the last four years in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas has broken our hearts in ways that other humanitarian crises have not."

And you all travel around the world to go to natural disasters and places where there's a lot going on, but you're saying this is equal to if not worse than some of those?

Bonds: Yeah, I mean I think that it is similar to the experience that people who are traveling here have. This is America. It should be better here. We should be doing better. That we continue to see the rates of trauma as high as they are with people released from Border Patrol is very heartbreaking. But also there's no change. You know, we have been doing this for four years. We've put a human effort, human capital towards it. Monetary capital towards it.

The analogy that I use for this response is that '80s movie Groundhog Day. It feels the same every day, and it doesn't feel like it's getting any better, it doesn't feel like it's getting any easier. Whereas in other places that we work, like especially if it's an acute thing, like a flood or a quake, you just recover.

We've been working in Syria for seven years since the beginning of the war. That's a little different, right? That keeps changing, but we know what to expect. And I think that in this situation we just keep hoping that this is gonna get easier and it's going to get better, that they're going to be more resources, that there's going to be more understanding and warmth extended to these folks, and it just isn't the case.

Stayton: Do these people understand what's happening and what's going on?

Bonds: No, they often don't even really know where they're going. You know, we have a very small time frame in which we interact with them; it's maybe just like 15 or 20 minutes. But one of the things that we try to offer is follow-up care: Where you going? You're eight and a half months pregnant, maybe we could find you some postpartum care, a pediatrician for the baby? Oh, we're going to North Carolina. Do you know where in North Carolina? No. Who are you going to meet? My uncle, my father's friend, which is a whole other can of worms. Super scary. Which is why we've now started doing all sorts of human trafficking work. They're scared and they don't know where they're going.

Stayton: Am I correct that ankle monitors are placed on everybody? What does that part of the process in the system look like?

Bonds: Ankle monitors are really big, and so oftentimes we have to cut their pants off, so that they can take a shower because they can't remove the ankle monitor. The ankle monitor also has to be charged every 24, 36 hours. So imagine you're on a bus in the middle of the night headed from McAllen to Wyoming or Milwaukee. It has an alarm on it, so when it starts to not be charged, it's like a car alarm on a bus, right? So that notifies everybody on the bus to who you are.

We have heard stories of people spending being ejected from buses in the middle of nowhere. They don't have any money. They don't understand the system. They don't speak English. But it is very stigmatizing and traumatizing.

Stayton: The people that you're seeing, they've been released from Border Patrol, did they tell you what they want? Why they came?

Bonds: Some do. Some have just been waiting for someone to ask. Our volunteers are really well-trained. Trauma-informed care is a requirement for all of our providers, so they know how to interact with this population and they know when it's OK to ask and when it isn't OK to ask. Some people, you can't. There's no point going there; it would be more traumatic for them. But some people are just waiting for the opportunity to tell somebody.

Usually what happens when the question is bridged is just a lot of weeping, like uncontrollable weeping, like the first opportunity to really just let it out. And then what you hear is, "I can't believe the way I'm being treated. I can't believe the way that I've been treated here. It was supposed to be better here."

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