A migrant walks through a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico in November.

A migrant walks through a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico in November. Eric Gay/AP

How Sick Do Migrant Children Have to Be to Get Help From the U.S.?

Border guards repeatedly denied entry to a 7-year-old with life threatening illness. Why did they change their minds?

Until this week, a 7-year-old Honduran girl had been living at a makeshift refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico, with an infected opening in her groin known as a fistula—an aperture through which excrement seeped from her colon to the surface of her skin. She was withdrawn, small for her age, and clinging to her mother, Greg Shays, a volunteer pediatrician from California who evaluated her in the camp’s mobile medical clinic last week, told me. Her mother did her best to keep the fistula clean with baby wipes and donated diapers, but in a squalid camp where potable water is in short supply, asylum seekers wash clothes in a river teeming with E.coli, and a handful of porta-potties serves up to 2,000 people, the girl’s health continued to deteriorate.

Shays included his evaluation in a letter that lawyers presented to American border agents to urge them to admit the girl into the United States so she could get care. He worried she could soon become fatally septic. Customs and Border Protection rebuffed the girl three timesallowing her to enter the U.S. on Tuesday only after lawyers and medical professionals mounted a pressure campaign on her behalf. Other seriously ill asylum seekers remained in the camp—highlighting, advocates told me, the shifting standards and opaque rationales with which border officials grant medical exemptions to the Trump administration’s sweeping new policy forcing asylum seekers to “remain in Mexico” while pursuing their claims in U.S. court.