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A mother's pilgrimage: Carrying her disabled child, Honduran woman seeking medical care finds her way to Baltimore

At the December day’s first glimmer of light, a small Honduran woman carried her feverish 3-year-old daughter along the empty streets of East Baltimore toward Johns Hopkins Hospital, a place she had never heard of but could just see in the distance.

It was the last stretch in a monthlong journey that had taken her almost 2,000 miles in search of medical care for her child. Out of desperation, the 23-year-old mother had traversed gang territories, trusted people she had just met, gotten lost and then been found.

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She walked into the emergency room with the bundle in her arms, speaking no English, unsure she could communicate what was wrong. She trusted that God would help her, as she believes he has throughout her ordeal.

Josselin Mencia came to the United States because she had no faith that Honduran doctors could help her daughter, a tiny, fragile child who was born partially paralyzed. They were among 60,000 people who were detained at the southwestern border in December, roughly half of them families with children.

Mencia and her daughter, Brianna, have no certain future, though there are possible legal routes for seeking asylum when someone needs medical treatment, lawyers say.

A spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform, a group that wants to reduce immigration, called Mencia’s situation “compelling.” But he added that just because someone needs medical care doesn’t give them the right to remain in the U.S. They may pose a cost to the country if they rely on government-funded programs, spokesman Ira Mehlman said. And the U.S. immigration system is so clogged with people seeking to abuse the process, he said, it has become more difficult to consider “the exceptional cases” that may deserve to stay.

Arriving at Hopkins, Mencia was handed a computer tablet with an interpreting program so she could tell doctors what was wrong: Brianna was born with some paralysis in her arms and legs, and never learned to walk or speak. She has trouble eating anything that isn’t mushed up, and drinks milk from a bottle with a nipple that has a large opening because she can’t suck well. Her seizures began in July, but in October, they worsened. They left the girl’s body shaking, and foam came from her mouth.

Brianna had a high fever and was treated for that quickly before being admitted, Mencia said.

She hasn’t often left the child’s side. But a few days after getting to Baltimore, she appeared before Immigration and Customs Enforcement here, and was required to be at a different office the next day to get an ankle bracelet. She showed up in summer sandals and without a coat.

In an interview, Mencia said what happens next will depend in part on how Brianna is doing.

“Having gone through everything I did, I feel calm now,” she said in Spanish. “It’s not like in my country, where you enter the hospital sick and come out sicker. I feel very good to be here.”

She said doctors in Honduras couldn’t tell her what was wrong, and she didn’t feel they could appropriately treat her daughter. “I did look for help in my home country, but I didn’t get any answers,” she said.

Her decision to leave came after long prayers in church. Her cousin was planning a trip to Mexico, and a friend in Baltimore said she would take Mencia in.

She embarked on the dangerous pilgrimage in hopes she could find doctors who would find a way to make her child walk.

‘Please don’t let her get sick’

Mother and daughter left Honduras on Nov. 2, traveling on buses with the cousin and others. Sometimes they hitched rides from people “with big hearts,” Mencia says. They also did a lot of walking, with Brianna carried by her mother and others.

Brianna’s father had left them in the months after her birth, and Mencia had been living in her family’s home as she raised the child. Over the years, she eventually figured out how to get Brianna to eat. Mencia would coax her to swallow baby food, soup or mashed potatoes in small doses.

But the trip was hard for her daughter, Mencia said, and often Brianna would spit things out, leaving her exasperated mother in tears. As the days wore on, the child was eating almost nothing but milk.

“I would look at her little face, and if I saw she was sad I would get distraught, and I would say to myself, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ ” Mencia said. “But the only thing I could think about was to pray and ask God, ‘Everything I’m doing is for her. Please don’t let her get sick on the journey.’ ”

She ran out of diapers and milk. Then somewhere in Mexico her cousin left her, saying he would gather supplies, but he never returned.

Mencia decided to return home to Honduras. She went to a park where, she was told, Mexican immigration authorities often would pick people up and deport them. But the immigration agents drove on by, she said.

The people she was traveling with said it was a sign: “ ‘You see Immigration doesn’t want you, so it is your destiny to go on.’ ”

She found a truck driver who agreed to take her and Brianna within a few hours of the U.S. border. She knew it was risky because she didn’t know the man, but climbed into the truck with her child anyway.

They arrived in Monterrey, Mexico, about 160 miles from the border. There she stayed with nuns who gave her supplies for Brianna, but told her the border area was dangerous and filled with “mafia” who would never let her cross without paying them. She hesitated for a day or two, but met a woman — herself the mother of a sick child — who was moved to buy Mencia a bus ticket to the border.

There Mencia found a man with a “big beard and tattoos” who said he would take her and Brianna across the Rio Grande in a raft if he was paid.

She lingered at a house for days, wondering what to do next. Finally, she said, the man took pity, saying that he saw her bravery and how far she had traveled with her child. He arranged for someone to take her across the river for free.

Mencia knew that once on U.S. soil, she would have to walk for a while to get to a place where the immigration authorities would pick her up. Carrying Brianna, she set off alone into the mountains. The landscape was confusing, she said. After getting lost, she sat down under a tree.

“I stared down at my baby girl, and she looked so tranquil and relaxed,” she said. But in that moment, she was overwhelmed with regret at what she had put her daughter through. She cried as she told of picking up the child, giving her a hug, and asking Brianna to forgive her if she had suffered during the trip. Then she moved on, realizing that they could not be alone when night came.

She prayed and finally found a road — as well as about 30 other travelers, whom she joined. Mencia was exhausted, and worried about Brianna’s eating, when they were suddenly covered in the bright lights of American immigration agents.

Mencia said she and her companions cheered.

In foreign territory

As she entered detention, Mencia was asked to empty all her belongings — including the seizure medicine for her daughter and the special nipple — into a bag. She agreed, she said, not knowing she wouldn’t get the supplies back.

The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol did not respond to requests for comment on Mencia’s account of what happened next:

When she later protested that she needed the medicine, she said, she was told everything had been thrown away. In detention, she began banging on the door and told authorities she needed milk for her child. Workers gave her some milk, she said, but Brianna wouldn’t drink it because it was cold and she was used to having it warmed.

Without the nipple, Mencia began little by little to feed Brianna the cold milk. She described the officials as gruff and uncaring.

The child did get seen by a woman who Mencia believes was a doctor. But when she explained that the seizure medication had been taken from her, the woman said she could not prescribe the drug because it wasn’t available in the detention center.

“It was really difficult,” Mencia said. “Especially when the woman said, ‘No one told you to come here.’ It made me feel like I’m invading foreign territory, and I can’t be asking for anything.”

She was in detention for four days, still worried about how little food Brianna was getting without the nipple.

After being released in McAllen, Texas, Mencia says, she made her way to a nonprofit that helps immigrants and gave her supplies for her daughter. She used a phone there to call her friend in Baltimore, who bought her a bus ticket. Mencia arrived in the city two days later, on Dec. 11.

That night, Brianna began running a fever and Mencia felt she needed to get her medical attention. Her friend told her no hospital would treat her daughter because she hadn’t been born in the U.S. Mencia headed out anyway, not knowing that the closest hospital was also one of the best in the country.

‘Access’ to medical care

Doctors at Hopkins said Brianna was dehydrated and anemic, as well as having some nutritional deficits. They began feeding her with a tube through her nose.

They diagnosed Brianna as having brain damage from a traumatic birth, said Barbara G. Cook, medical director of The Access Partnership at Hopkins. Cook said Brianna has been left with partial paralysis of her arms and legs. Since birth, she has had difficulty holding her head up, and needs to be strapped in a chair to sit up.

Cook said that under the Access program, begun years ago, Hopkins provides free care to people living in neighborhoods around the hospital if they are low income and aren’t eligible for Medicaid or Medicare. To qualify for free care, patients typically must have lived in the neighborhood for six months. In unusual circumstances, Cook said, the hospital will waive the requirement — as they have in Brianna’s case.

In a small private room in the Children’s Center, Mencia says she is grateful for the attention and care Brianna has received at Hopkins. The young mother feels “like Donald Trump’s daughter,” she says — she can see that the nurses and doctors care about Brianna, and she is glad they are researching what is wrong with her brain.

After arriving at the hospital weighing just 17 pounds — about half the average weight for a child her age — Brianna has gained 4 pounds in a month.

Sitting at the edge of Brianna’s hospital bed, her hand gently holding her daughter’s toe, Mencia said she believes it was God’s plan that she happened to arrive in a house that was just a short way from Hopkins.

Brianna spent a month at Hopkins before being discharged in mid-January. Doctors inserted a permanent feeding tube through her stomach, deciding that despite her mother’s painstaking efforts, she can’t take in enough food to thrive without it. Mencia and her friend, who asked not to be identified, have found a place together in East Baltimore not far from the hospital.

Mencia, like other immigrants caught at the border and then allowed to be released into the U.S., must have a hearing in immigration court where a judge determines whether she will be deported or allowed to stay in the country based on a variety of factors. That decision isn’t likely to come soon. The courts are backlogged and the average wait for a hearing in Baltimore is 599 days.

Until then, Mencia says she hopes to find work, though that also would mean arranging care for Brianna. Some nonprofit groups offer assistance to immigrants. She and Brianna are not eligible for government assistance programs.

Because of the progress she sees Brianna making, Mencia said she would like to stay in the United States so her child could have a better quality of life.

“The hospital told me there isn’t much chance that she can walk, but still I always trust in God,” Mencia said. “I know that if I try a little more, I will see the miracle of God in my daughter. I'm not going to give up that easily.”

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