Fear Among Immigrants Challenges SMU Medical Mission to Mexican Border

Last year's San Ysidro trip
Friday, March 16, 2018

When Samuel Merritt University (SMU) students and faculty members begin their 10th annual medical mission to San Ysidro today, their biggest challenge will be to convince people living along the Mexican border that it’s safe to show up for their free clinical services.

“The climate down there is more fearful with the increasing number of immigration raids,” said third-year podiatry student Emily Khuc, one of the student organizers of the trip. “We’re figuring out the role of the clinic in this atmosphere.”

Khuc traveled to San Ysidro last week to ensure that the group’s supplies had arrived and to help get the word out about the March 16-17 clinic. She said last year the mood in the community was bad, but this year it’s worse due to the Trump administration's continuing crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

This year’s mission comes only three days after President Trump traveled to the region between San Diego and Tijuana to view prototypes of the wall he promises to build to prevent immigrants from crossing the border into the United States. Anti-Trump protests were held during his visit in San Ysidro, which hosts the nation's busiest border crossing.

During the medical mission, an interdisciplinary team of SMU students and faculty clinicians will evaluate and treat foot and ankle conditions as well as conduct health screenings for diabetes and vascular disease in a clinic they set up at Centro Romero. The team will also distribute donated shoes, socks and orthotic inserts to the migrant community.

The mission is so popular among SMU students that participants are chosen by lottery to ensure that everyone who goes gains valuable clinical experience. This year, 17 podiatry students will team up with six Family Nurse Practitioner students to provide services. For many, it is their first clinical experience with an underserved population in a different culture.

Aggressive enforcement actions over the past year have had a chilling effect on people seeking care in San Ysidro, according to Dr. Ajitha Nair, the supervising clinician for the medical mission and an assistant professor in SMU’s California School of Podiatric Medicine.

“Immigration has a huge impact on what we do there,” said Nair, “We don’t ask our clients about their immigration status, but we’ve noticed apprehension on the last two missions there.”

Nair said despite the school’s history of providing care to the community, only about 80 patients sought clinical services last year — far fewer than in previous years when as many as 150 residents showed up — because there were immigration sweeps shortly before the SMU team arrived.

“They were more cautious,” Nair said. “The presence of ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in their neighborhoods is a reason people don’t leave their homes.”

As a result, she said, the clinicians have been educating themselves about how to make the clients feel safe and protected.

Over the decade, SMU students have performed diagnostic evaluations on patients ranging from young children to the elderly, with some crossing the border from Mexico to seek care. California School of Podiatric Medicine students raise funds and collect donations for the medical mission.

Khuc, who has gone on the mission every year since beginning the podiatry program, said it has been rewarding to learn from her peers and professors outside of the classroom and to work with patients who lack access to healthcare.

“I think this trip has helped me realize that at any skill level, you can give back,” said Khuc.


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