Doctors are sounding the alarm about a public health crisis near San Diego: Immigrants trying to enter the U.S. by climbing the 30-foot border wall erected during the Trump administration are suffering life-threatening injuries.
Dr. Amy Liepert, a trauma surgeon at University of California San Diego Health, said patients trying to come in from Tijuana are experiencing “gruesome” brain injuries, as well as skull and facial bone fractures.
“In the trauma center, we see only the most severe injuries that are potentially life-threatening or might need emergent, operative intervention,” Liepert told Yahoo News.
She said data collected by her team shows that since 2019 — when the border wall was raised to 30 feet in areas of California under then-President Donald Trump — the number of fall-related injuries and deaths has risen significantly. From 2016 to 2018, doctors registered 67 patients in the trauma unit. From 2019 to 2021, that number jumped to 375.
“We know children are falling. We've seen men and women. We've taken care of pregnant women,” Liepert said. “It seems to us that patients that come in tend to be perhaps less athletic or a bit heavier. Maybe they're not as strong to successfully navigate the wall.”
She has also said, “The height increase of the border wall along the San Ysidro and El Centro sectors was touted as making the barrier ‘unclimbable,’ but that has not stopped people from attempting to do so with consequential results.”
According to the data, published in the medical journal JAMA Surgery on April 29, no deaths were reported before 2019; however, in the past three years, doctors said 16 deaths had been related to border-wall injuries.
“These are very severe compound fractures that the bone is in unusually multiple pieces. There's a lot of soft-tissue damage. A fair number of these patients need to have multiple trips to the operating room,” Liepert said.
Another trauma center in San Diego, at Scripps Mercy Hospital, is also seeing a dramatic increase in migrants seeking medical help. Vishal Bansal, director of trauma at the hospital, told the Washington Post that in 2020 doctors treated 41 migrants for injuries related to crossing the border wall; in 2021 the number jumped to 139.
“In order to address the border, we trade on and off,” Liepert said of treating injured migrants. “And so now that we’re into May, it’s the other trauma center’s primary responsibility to take patients transporting from the border wall with any injuries that occur there.”
Most patients do not have the financial means to pay for their medical needs due to their circumstances or immigration status. The money often comes out of the hospital’s resources. Over the last three years, Liepert said, the hospital has spent $13 million alone to cover these expenses.
“Some of the patients may be able to have some funds that they pay for. If they remain within Border Patrol custody, they may pay for some of the services. But oftentimes these patients do not have, as far as I know, there is not a funding source for them,” she said.
Liepert said that in the midst of the immigration public health crisis, it’s important to remember the conditions people are facing in their home countries and why they are willing to risk their lives to come to the U.S.
She added that it’s really important to make sure that "anytime we’re having these national conversations and public policy conversations, we have to take a wide view and see how it impacts our local health care systems and other parts of our society on the United States side, because there are a lot of unintended consequences."