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New Mexico cities mobilize as shelters take in more migrants

By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN and RUSSELL CONTRERASMarch 13, 2019
Santa Fe Archbishop John Wester, left, talks to Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, right, at Catholic Charities in Albuquerque, N.M., on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. Keller announced Wednesday that "hundreds" of migrants from Central America and Brazil are expected to arrive in the city in the coming weeks and volunteers are preparing for visitors. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras)
Santa Fe Archbishop John Wester, left, talks to Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, right, at Catholic Charities in Albuquerque, N.M., on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. Keller announced Wednesday that "hundreds" of migrants from Central America and Brazil are expected to arrive in the city in the coming weeks and volunteers are preparing for visitors. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — From New Mexico’s southern border to its largest city, municipal, state and religious organizations are pulling together to coordinate services for the increasing number of asylum-seeking migrants being housed in shelters before heading to other destinations around the U.S. to await formal hearings.

The state health department on Wednesday announced the arrival of a mobile medical unit in the border community of Las Cruces that will help with health assessments for the migrants staying in shelters located throughout the city.

Doctors, nurses and other providers there say they have been volunteering since 2014, when groups of unaccompanied minors first began to show up in the region. They spend time visiting the shelters set up by area churches, tending to anyone seeking care.

Most of the cases involve dehydration, malnutrition and illnesses like colds and the flu.

“The refugee crisis has been waxing and waning for several years now but since September we’ve been going weekly, and we’ve been going one to three, sometimes four times a week depending on the volume of migrants that come,” said John Andazola, a family doctor and director of the residency program based at Memorial Medical Center.

Andazola has a team of residents and faculty who have been working around the clock, covering their regular shifts as well as seeing many of the migrants who pass through the shelters. He estimated several hundred patients were seen over the last six months. That included 10 children who were admitted to the hospital for more care.

The challenge is the shelters are often at capacity, leaving little room where medical professionals can do their assessments. They often have to examine their patients while sitting at the edge of a cot as others in the shelter are busy preparing meals or making travel plans.

Abinash Achrekar, New Mexico’s deputy health secretary, said in an interview that he’s hopeful the roving medical unit will provide another option for care that will help lessen the number of visits to the emergency room for ailments that can be treated otherwise.

He’s also working to address liability issues for providers interested in volunteering. One possibility is getting them signed up with the New Mexico Health Services Corps so they will be covered for work done outside of their usual hospitals and clinics.

During a recent visit to Las Cruces, Achrekar said he was astounded when he walked into a shelter and saw about 60 migrants in a space capable of housing about a one-third of that.

Some were dehydrated, some were hungry and a few were coughing, he said.

“In that moment I realized this is public health,” Achrekar said. “These are human beings that need some assistance and we feel compelled as the state of New Mexico to provide that care to them.”

“It’s a win-win for everybody to provide this minimal amount of assessment and treatment to these people,” he said.

There are talks underway about expanding the network of providers who can do this sort of work as New Mexico’s largest city recently played host to around 300 migrants who were bused north from El Paso, Texas, and Las Cruces since shelters there were running out of room.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said more migrants from Central America and Brazil are expected in the coming weeks.

“These asylum seekers are not staying here permanently,” Keller said. “This is one stop on their long, long journey.”

Keller said he was confident the city had enough resources from hotels and faith-based groups to provide temporary housing when needed. If Albuquerque runs out of temporary housing, willing residents could volunteer to offer shelter.

Asked if he would open his own home if needed, Keller said “absolutely.”

Still, Keller said the city is seeking medical volunteers and will be coordinating with faith-based groups to manage donations.

Santa Fe Archbishop John Wester was among those calling on residents Wednesday to help. He said the migrant crisis was a “spiritual reality” that has come to Albuquerque.

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