If you head over to the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center in southern California, you’ll see hundreds of immigrant children waiting for their lives to start after trekking hundreds of miles from Central America to the Southern U.S.-Mexico border. The facility is staffed with some of the most compassionate nurses and doctors you’ll ever meet. While caring for these kids, they’ve become a temporary family in this makeshift building they’re forced to call home.
Caring for the Frailest of Children
Nurse Chai-Chih Huang, the Director of Pediatric Nursing at Mattel Children’s Hospital of UCLA Health, is working a temporary assignment at the Long Beach center to help care for the surge migrant children coming into the U.S. It’s one of a dozen facilities the Biden Administration set up to move kids away from the temporary shelters at the border, where at least five children died from 2018 to 2019. These centers are run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. By June, the facility was caring for 115 children. It has connected 775 others to relatives and sponsors already living in the
U.S. Experts say hundreds of children from Central America are attempting to cross the Mexico border every day. Most of the children arrive at the Long Beach Convention Center by bus. Huang says they are usually timid but “very well behaved.”
“They warm up to the staff here and when they get to know you and start talking to you, it melts your heart,” she added.
She’s caring for a young pair of siblings, a 5-year-old girl and her 10-year-old brother, who remain anonymous for privacy reasons. The boy explains that they were separated for a week during their journey to the U.S. Now reunited, they always stay by each other’s side.
“She looked so sad and didn’t say anything,” Huang says of the girl. She doesn’t know much about the siblings’ story, but many of the kids she sees trekked hundreds of miles of dangerous terrain guided by a smuggler en route to the U.S.
“We can imagine they have been through a lot. They’re very grateful, and they’re an amazing, resilient group,” says Jennie Sierra, nursing director in the neonatal intensive care unit at the Orange County hospital. “Most of my nurses here come from immigrant families, and we consider it an honor and privilege to serve in this capacity.”
The children receive a health assessment at the pediatric clinic within two days of arriving at the facility. Many of them come in with chronic headaches and stomachaches, rough or broken skin, rashes, infections, and sores from walking for days on end.
Many of the kids are visibly traumatized from the journey, but the center doesn’t offer much in terms of therapy or mental healthcare. However, the kids can sign up for counseling or weekly group discussions overseen by a clinician.
Despite the challenges, Dr. Charles Golden, a pediatrician and executive medical director of Children’s Hospital of Orange County’s primary care network, says the work “has been very moving and meaningful, even life-changing.”
He remembers seeing a group of kids sitting in a circle playing games. “They came over and gave me a big hug,” Golden said.
Staffers have been doing their best to brighten their spirits. UCLA Health child life specialist Tracy Reyes Serrano says many of the kids get access to the facilities on campus, including classrooms, the library, and indoor and outdoor play spaces.
“When the kids hear songs they recognize, it lifts their spirits; they’re quick to get up and dance and sing, and we’re happy to join them,” Serrano said.
The Long Beach Convention Center also launched the Migrant Children Support Fund where people can donate money for toys, games, educational programs, and even gift cards that benefit the kids.
Jennie Sierra remembers talking to a young girl that wanted to become a pediatrician. “I told her, ‘This is a great country with great opportunities. You’re going to be an amazing doctor,’” Sierra said.
U.S. Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.) recently visited the center to see how the kids were doing. She said the kids seemed to be smiling and somewhat hopeful, including a boy from Honduras.
“He was very happy until I asked about his home country, and he looked like he wanted to cry,” she said. “Someone in our group said, ‘It’s beautiful there,’ and he said ‘No, it’s bad,’ and talked about gangs and violence. He was willing to disagree with an adult.”
Without much knowledge about their past, caring for the kids can be difficult, but Jennifer Sablan Panopio, nurse manager at UCI Health’s neonatal intensive care unit who’s become the convention center’s go-to nurse since taking the temporary assignment, says, “We can at least help give them a positive experience here, a good start.”