Losing people, but saving lives


MEXICO CITY - If it can't stop illegal emigration to the United States, the Mexican government thinks at least its people shouldn't die in the process. So starting next month, the government will distribute up to 200,000 survival kits to people planning on emigrating to the United States this summer.

The kits will contain information to prepare emigrants for what they face on the trip north - which usually includes a trek through deserts and mountains of Arizona or California. There will be medicine for diarrhea and snake and scorpion bites; bandages: aspirin; powder to prevent dehydration; condoms and a month's worth of birth control pills; water; salt; dry meat; granola; and cans of tuna.

Authorities also plan to train hundreds of volunteers - drawn from the people who already cross and re-cross the border every year - in emergency first aid. These unofficial medics would be given surgery soap, sutures for sewing wounds, thermometers, gauze, cotton and other implements to attend to medical problems of emigrants on the road.

A committee of doctors and health workers formed by the government's Office for Mexicans Abroad came up with the idea. Juan Hernandez, the office's director, acknowledged the packets might appear to encourage illegal immigration. But, he said of the government, "We're not going to close our eyes. We have individuals with needs and they are dying at the border. This office was created specifically to watch out for their needs."

There has been criticism. "We're interested in the health of these people," Hernandez responded in the Mexico City daily Reforma yesterday. "They're going to the United States and returning with AIDS, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and we're going to be working to see they return healthy."

"I'm not bothered by the debate over what this kit ought to include, since you have to figure out what it is that will really help these folks and their relatives. But nothing's been decided yet regarding what we'll do this summer. The truth is that hundreds of Mexicans will die this summer along the border."

The program - Vete Sano, Regresa Sano (Leave Healthy, Return Healthy) - is scheduled to begin June 15 and cost $2 million. The money is to come from the government, which is seeking funding from the California Endowment. That private health care foundation has set $50 million for programs to improve the health of California farm workers.

"The concept is fascinating and consistent with the kind of commitment this [money] would support," said Dr. Robert Ross, California Endowment president, and former San Diego County health director. "We are very committed to working with Mexican public health officials."

Officials from California Endowment and the Mexican government met last week in San Diego. The program will proceed even if the organization does not lend support, just in reduced form, Mexican government officials say. Training for volunteers has begun.

In their packets, emigrants will receive a list of California health clinics that don't ask for Social Security numbers. Tuberculosis sufferers will receive a card that documents their treatment up to their departure, so they can continue treatment at U.S. clinics.

Finally, there will be meetings to teach emigrants how to use the medicine and condoms, about nutrition, as well as self-esteem and meditation techniques to combat depression and anxiety in a country they've entered illegally.

"Those who've gone to the U.S. have told us of their experiences. This is what they've told us they need," said Dr. Angel Flores, chief of community action for the Mexican Institute of Social Security, which has a network of 3,000 rural health workers responsible for health education and delivery of the kits.

As U.S. Border Patrol surveillance has increased, emigrants have resorted to crossing in isolated desert and mountain areas of California and Arizona. Last year, 490 Mexicans died crossing the 1,952-mile border with the United States, according to the Mexican government. This year, emigrants crossing the border have been dying at a rate of about one a day, and that is before summer, when government officials say the toll increases.

The packets and health workshops will be presented to 369 of the poorest immigrant-sending municipalities in 17 states in Mexico, Flores said. Oaxaca, Michoacan, Zacatecas and Jalisco are the principal home states of those heading for California, he said.

The survival kits have never been tried. The biggest obstacle to their success could be the people they're intended to help - emigrants themselves.

"This could help avoid many deaths. But if you ask emigrants, 70 percent of them don't see any risks," said Jorge Santibanez, president of the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a state university in Tijuana, who serves on the health committee that designed the program. "They're not conscious of the risks. So if the kit isn't accompanied with education on how to use it and why it's necessary, it won't be used."

The program is part of a major shift in Mexico's policy regarding emigration to the United States.

For many years, the Mexican government ignored emigrants' plight. Some complained of extortion by police when they returned home, and of being treated like traitors by the government for leaving to make a living. But President Vicente Fox has made attention to emigrants a high priority. Before Christmas, he went to the border to welcome emigrants home for vacation.

Fox set up the Office for Mexicans Abroad, which is working to open a division of the attorney general's office to prosecute people committing crimes against emigrants. In September it will deliver legislation to Congress allowing Mexicans abroad to vote in Mexican elections, Hernandez said.

The emigrant-survival kits are the bluntest sign yet of the change in attitude toward emigrants.

"It reflects a reality that has rarely been reflected officially," Santibanez said. "Mexico avoided actions that could appear to be helping migrants leave. There was a kind of self-censorship: 'What will the U.S. say if we look like we're helping them leave?' This self-censorship has disappeared. This is very positive."

Along with the packets, health workers will teach emigrants about nutrition and diabetes.

Many emigrants contract diabetes in the United States, Flores said. Their diet in Mexico is meager but relatively healthful, including tortillas - made of corn meal - and beans. But emigrants, ignorant of what's available and unable to speak English, often resort to junk food in the United States.

"We want them to know that in the U.S. they can eat well," Flores said, "and they can find what they eat here in Mexico."

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