The Other Border Migration

By 10 a.m., as we pull into the fenced parking lot, half of the one thousand slots are already full.  A constant stream of mostly older men and women are making their way toward the revolving pedestrian gate that allows you to leave the United States and enter Mexico at this particular border crossing.

Idaho seems a long way away.  On this day we’re about ten miles outside of Yuma, Arizona, along the Colorado River.  It’s late March and already 80 degrees.   We’re surrounded by palm trees.

We’re here for our own spring break, and whenever we’re near the border we like to cross over and enjoy the blaring jangle of color and noise that fills all the Mexican border towns, except, these days, Tijuana.

Meanwhile, the stream of Americans just keeps coming.   We’re told it’s like this every day, all day long.  As we walk through the parking lot we see license plates from about twenty different states.  Why so many on a weekday in March?  Is the market that large for baskets, pottery and velvet paintings?

Actually, no.  Nearly all of them are here to get what they can’t get in America.

It turns out that Los Algodones, population 5,500, is a town with a mission.  It exists for one reason only—to provide Americans with what we should be able to provide ourselves, but don’t.

Walk through the turnstile and the street hustlers approach.

“Need a dentist?”  “…a doctor?”  “…glasses?” “…minor surgery? “…pharmacy drugs?”

And the answer is always yes.  That’s why Americans come to Los Algodones.  They can get dentures and implants and other high cost procedures for about half of what it would cost in the US even after insurance.

Most Mexican border towns have a few clinics.  Los Algodones is nothing but clinics.  The doctors are highly trained.  The office workers speak English.  Patients pay in cash or write checks, and, considering the savings, they’re glad to do it.

Well, maybe glad isn’t the best word.  It’s not like they have much choice.

They come here, to this low-cost medical care oasis, because they can’t afford medical care in America.  Between the ridiculous deductibles, soaring monthly premiums and dwindling coverage, thousands have discovered that it’s cheaper to pay for a passport, take time off and and drive to the border to get treatment than to face the financial devastation of poor health in America.

In a small plaza we sat on a bench, sipped our horchatas and watched them flow by.  Six to ten clinics on every block, and the waiting rooms all filled.  We ended up speaking to a few of the patients.  Sure, we were told, they would have preferred to get their implants in the United States.  But it’s half the price down here, and the quality is great if you do your homework to make sure the doctor knows his, or her, stuff.  Many were repeat customers.

The stories all began differently, but ended in the same place.  It’s not like they have much choice.

Much is being made these days of the attempted flow of Central and South Americans into the US, but no one is paying attention to the flow of Americans into Mexico, thousands every day, because of our failure to provide a way for Americans to be sick in America.  Instead, we go without treatment, or risk financial calamity.  Or go to Mexico.

This week President Trump made two announcements that may affect these medical refugees.  First, came the announcement that his party is about to become “the party of healthcare.”  Although no one, including congressional Republicans, knows what that means yet, perhaps solutions to our sorry medical mess are on the way.

But I hope they come up with something soon, since we’re now looking at the possibility of a full-on border closing.  If it happens, not only legal businesses on both sides will be hurt, so will thousands of Americans who’ll have to cancel their Mexican medical appointments.

If it happens, it will kind of be like the tariff wars.  Suffering on both sides.  Well, I suppose we’re getting used to it.

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