At 50 years old, Marsha Griffin started medical school.
In the 1970s, Griffin dreamed of becoming a doctor. But at the time, medical schools had an unwritten quota of women students admitted and few, if any, accepted women who were pregnant.
After raising her children, Griffin entered seminary in Minnesota to study social justice and made a career in activism and advocacy. She made documentary films for disenfranchised kids and created housing programs for populations in need, including former addicts, homeless kids, and Somalian refugees. Undeterred, Dr. Griffin finally fulfilled her first dream of attending medical school at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
Dr. Griffin made her medical career in pediatrics in Texas, and soon began helping children who fled from life threatening situations to the United States border in search of safety. Since then, she has launched and developed a series of programs along the border to provide medical care to immigrants and asylum seekers.
“If you’re on the border, no matter what you’re talking about…immigration runs right through the middle,” Griffin said.
For six years, Dr. Griffin managed a medical clinic at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, TX. The Respite Center is one of the first places where asylum seekers stop for help after release by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Dr. Griffin performed brief triage examinations, provided any regular care the children might need, and assessed if the child had any serious medical conditions that could require more extensive care. If they did, she helped connect the child and parents with specialists across the country in their destination communities.
Dr. Griffin treats children, but the Clinic is also seen as a safe space for parents to open up about their experiences. One of the questions she might ask them was “Did you have to leave in a hurry?”
“I’ve had many fathers start crying when I asked that,” Dr. Griffin said.
Dr. Griffin has become keenly aware of the medical needs of asylum-seeking children. One day she was asked to examine a three-year-old girl with no speech, despite being otherwise developmentally on track. When Dr. Griffin heard the story of how the mother and daughter fled Guatemala, she knew the girl’s speech most likely was affected by the trauma of their dangerous journey.
“They would often hide in the brush or in the forest, and in the tall grass. And the mother was always telling her to ‘shh, shh’ and so she learned to be quiet.”
The medical care provided on the border is critical, but the immigrant shelters along the border are just a stop on an asylum seeker’s way to live with sponsors in other parts of the country. Continuity of care is a challenge.
That’s where the Specialty Care Access Network (SCAN), part of the Migrant Clinician Network, comes in. SCAN was created by Dr. Griffin and pediatricians across the country, and it is now comprised of physicians in the top 15 most common destination cities for asylum seekers.
When a family leaves the border, SCAN medical clinicians and caseworkers take the family’s contact information and set up an appointment for their child with a subspecialist in their destination. The case managers then provide continuous care coordination, to ensure that the children receive the care they need.
“All of these doctors and all of these communities feel like they have the responsibility to care for these moms and babies,” said Dr. Griffin, “We felt like we had the capacity…it was just a matter of will.” And, as the saying goes: where there is a will, there is a way.
Last December, the SCAN team helped a mother and daughter from South America, who had been released from a family detention center.
A gang member had tortured the girl in an attempt to extort her mother. The five-year-old’s arm had been pulled so far behind her back that it broke her humerus, leaving her unable to bend her arm or feed herself.
Through SCAN, the child was able to be seen by a pediatric orthopedic physician in her destination community, where the mother and daughter went to live with family while pursuing their asylum case in immigration court. The surgeon and therapists are helping the girl regain mobility.
Dr. Griffin has also worked to expand other networks of care for asylum seekers. In 2007, she helped create the Community for Children International Elective. The program brings residents and medical students from all over the country to border communities to study the intersection of social justice and medicine through work with community organizations. Students in the program create health programs for children, consult with immigration attorneys to help win cases, and help write grants for organizations who needed support.
When the Trump administration initiated Title 42 last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it unnecessarily and unfairly shut down ports of entry at the border for asylum seekers. In the Rio Grande Valley where Dr. Griffin is located, Customs and Border Protection only allowed women in their third trimesters into the United States with their children. The number of people Dr. Griffin and her colleagues could help decreased significantly.
But under the Biden administration, Dr. Griffin sees a great opportunity to expand care to save thousands of lives. “We are at a cusp now. The inhumane treatment of immigrants and children can stop now,” Dr. Griffin said.
The Biden administration should urgently help provide the needed medical care, testing, and isolation of COVID patients who arrive at the border, so NGOs, shelters, and local community organizations can continue to welcome asylum seekers at the border.
“Together, we can provide quality medical care and support to the immigrant families. We have the responsibility, and the U.S. government has the capacity,” said Dr. Griffin.
The hard work is all worth it to Dr. Griffin. She says parents and children seeking asylum, many who have suffered tremendously and yet persevere, inspire her. “The greatest gift that I could have been given in this life, is to walk with these people and fight for them.”
#WeCanWelcome Asylum Seekers
With smart and humane policies, the United States can welcome people seeking safety and treat them with dignity. Read more at wecanwelcome.org.