UCSD trauma doctor says migrant injuries and deaths increased at an ‘unprecedented’ rate as the border wall grew taller

Doctors in San Diego are sounding the alarm about an immigration public health crisis. Trauma surgeons are seeing migrants arrive daily in the emergency room with life-threatening injuries after attempting to climb over the 30-foot border wall to come into the United States.
Patients are coming in with 'gruesome' brain injuries and skull and facial bone fractures, doctors say.

Video Transcript

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AMY LIEPERT: As a trauma center, we see only the most severe injuries that are potentially life threatening or might need emergent operative intervention.

- Doctors in San Diego are raising the alarm about an immigration public health crisis. According to UC San Diego Health, ever since the US-Mexico border was raised to 30 feet in 2019 under then-President Trump, the number of fall-related injuries and deaths rose significantly.

AMY LIEPERT: We looked at a patient population of the past six years, from 2016 through 2021. When we looked at the years 2016, '17, '18, we had 67 patients in our trauma registry from border wall injuries, presumably falls, for the most part. From '19, '20, '21, we actually had 375 patients.

- There were no deaths related to the border wall from 2016 to 2018. But in the last three years, doctors say they saw 16 deaths.

AMY LIEPERT: We know children are falling. We've seen men and women. We've taken care of pregnant women. 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.

More common injuries that we see are fractures to the extremities, particularly the legs. But we've seen brain injuries, skull fractures, facial bone fractures, and then major fractures such as the pelvis, chest wall, things like that. These are very severe compound fractures. The bone is in, usually, 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.

- The only other trauma center in San Diego is Scripps Mercy Hospital. In 2020, doctors there saw 41 migrants seeking medical help due to injuries. But in 2021, that number jumped to 139.

AMY LIEPERT: In order to address the border, we trade on and off. 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.

- Dr. Liepert says that the hospital costs have put a great strain on its health care system. The hospital cost alone was $13 million.

AMY LIEPERT: 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. They're released, and, as far as I know, there is not a funding source for them. These are just the patients that we've seen, which is probably about 60% of the patients that we see in San Diego County.

- Dr. Liepert says in the midst of immigration public health crisis, it's important to remember the conditions people are facing in their home country and why they are willing to risk their lives to come to the US.

AMY LIEPERT: It's really important to make is that any time 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. So we can provide not only resources for any of those consequences, but also make sure we maintain resources for our regular citizens as well.

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