Physicians arrested after protesting denial of flu shots to migrants in US custody

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At least two volunteer physicians were among a group of people arrested after protesting the refusal of the federal government to give migrant detainees a flu shot.

U.S. immigration authorities blocked the physicians from administering flu vaccines to migrants being held at a border patrol station just south of San Diego. They were arrested earlier this week after demonstrating outside of the facility. 

The protests occurred after the Trump administration denied the same group of doctors permission to open a free pilot flu clinic for detained migrants.

The physicians were joined by left-leaning immigration activists, all of whom said they were spurred into action by the deaths of three immigrant children from the flu.

“This is intentional cruelty,” Marie DeLuca, an emergency medicine research fellow from New York who helped organize the volunteers, said in a statement. “People are needlessly suffering and dying. You can’t lock people up in inhumane conditions, watch them get sick, and then refuse them access to medical care.”

Tensions between physicians and immigration authorities has been building as a result of the administration’s policy of not providing flu shots to detainees in Border Patrol custody. 

Doctors groups have raised concerns that detention centers are at high risk for influenza outbreaks, especially ones that combine rapid turnover of detainees with long-term detention.

Last month, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) released a letter from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that immigration authorities ignored its recommendation to provide detained migrants with flu shots. 

The outrage and criticism intensified earlier this month, when ProPublica published a video of a 16-year old Guatemalan boy who died in the agency’s custody after being left alone in a cell for hours. He had been diagnosed with the flu.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Border Patrol centers are meant for short-term detentions of only 72 hours. Migrants transferred to other agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, are given vaccinations and full medical screenings.

However, the agency has struggled to deal with an influx of migrants and has admitted that children and adults have been held in Border Patrol custody in crowded conditions for much longer than 72 hours. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security mocked the protesters on Twitter, saying the physicians were “radical political activists” who wanted to inject migrants with drugs.

According to a Border Patrol spokesperson, the agency has never had a policy to vaccinate detained migrants, and has no plans to implement one in the future. 

A spokesperson previously told The Hill that the agency has significantly expanded medical support efforts along the southern border, but “to try and layer a comprehensive vaccinations system onto that would be logistically very challenging.”

CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan told reporters earlier this week that detainees undergo three different levels of medical screenings during their time in Border Patrol custody before they are released to any other agency. 

Asked specifically about vaccines, Morgan said he was “not a medical expert” but that CBP was “taking a hard look” at the issue to implement the appropriate policy to ensure children were protected. 

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