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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

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Faculty from SDSU Imperial Valley have traveled wide for summer research this year. Video by: Padma Nagappan for SDSU

Medicine, Migrant Trauma, and Measuring Crime: Summer Research in Imperial Valley

The border region offers unique perspective for faculty members to advance their research.
By Padma Nagappan

Faculty and students from San Diego State University Imperial Valley have been actively involved in summer research that took them to different parts of the valley as well as Mexico, Austria and Hungary. Their work helps us better understand the trauma that migrants from troubled regions experience, the cultural beliefs that guide treatment decisions made by cancer patients, and the corruption and organized crime rampant in border regions. 

Cancer Care in the Border Region

Imperial Valley residents live in an area quite different from other parts of California. The closest big city, San Diego, is about two hours away, but Mexicali is just a short drive south of the border into Baja California in Mexico.

How does living in a binational, bicultural region with very different cultural models affect health and health care decisions? This is the question psychology professor Linda Abarbanell has been exploring this summer, along with two of her students Elvira Reyes-Hernandez and John Moreno, Jr., who received funding through the summer undergraduate research program.

Abarbanell set out to speak to people with cancer about their experience with the health care system, their own cultural beliefs, and how this shapes their views of illness and treatment options.

For low-income residents, access to health insurance is as much a problem here as anywhere else. But for those in Imperial Valley, alternative forms of health care south of the border are attractive options because of its affordability and their comfort with the area. Patients often need to navigate among services in Imperial Valley, San Diego and Mexicali.

“Lack of services in the valley is a big issue,” Abarbanell explained. She cited a woman with a lump in her breast who could not get her health insurance to cover the cost of a mammogram because she was under 40 and had no family history of breast cancer. 

The woman received help from the non-profit Imperial Valley Cancer Support Center in Brawley, but her trials continued. She wanted a double mastectomy as a precaution, but her doctors would only remove the breast with a cancerous lump. She sought reconstructive surgery but was denied, so she went south to Mexicali.

Only after the doctor there insisted she first have the other breast scanned, did they discover that she also had cancer in her second breast. Complications from her reconstructive surgery required her to undergo yet another surgery for corrective measures. 

Abarbanell also looked at the role faith played in the patient’s approach to treatment. 

“She firmly believes it’s the prayers offered by her support group that helped her get through all of it,” Abarbanell said. In contrast to those who consider themselves victims of fate, “people here believe this is a test and that God pulls them through it. Her church helped her and reassured her that God was not punishing her but helping her through a tough time. It’s a test of faith.”

To get perspective from both sides of the border, the researchers have interviewed patients in Imperial Valley and Mexicali. They hope their findings will sensitize health care providers to the beliefs and needs of their patients in the valley.

Measuring migrant trauma

Criminal justice professor Esperanza Camargo has long held an interest in studying family violence among different cultures, and what causes it. This summer, she teamed up with a colleague in Baja and Imperial Valley students to measure migrant trauma, and the effects of childhood adversity on adult migrants. 

The team went to shelters in Mexicali that house migrants from the Northern Triangle of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – to study the trauma they suffered before, during and after their migration.

“My hypothesis is that there is an additional intersectionality of social injury inflicted on migrants from the Northern Triangle long before they migrate,” Camargo said. “For example, they may have suffered adversity such as child abuse, witnessing parental domestic violence, paternal and/or maternal abandonment, violence against women, and institutionalized violence.”

She surmised that their trauma is more severe when compared to that of the general population, and it’s a precursor to their migration. This is part of an ongoing study that will continue for two more years, called the Observatory of Central/Latin American Migrants. 

The research team comprises Camargo, professor Kenia Ramirez from the Universidad de Baja California’s School of Social and Political Sciences, and graduate and undergraduate students Maritza Aguilar, Juan Teran and Adriana Moreno. They spent several weeks in May and June speaking with about 70 adult migrants, primarily from the Northern Triangle region. 

Measuring organized crime
Border areas are often thriving regions of trade, but also crime. Corruption among border law enforcement agencies and organized crime in border regions is the research focus for David Jancsics, public administration professor.

This led to an invitation from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to act as a consultant and participate in a research project on measuring organized crime in the Western Balkans. Jancsics, who was stationed in Budapest, Hungary for much of the summer, tracked regional trends and analyzed patterns of illegal activities by known organized crime groups in the region.

He was also part of a group of experts who met in Vienna, Austria in July to discuss their initial findings, and will present his report soon. 

“Border agencies are often key enablers of organized crime activities,” Jancsics said. “The location of the countries in the Western Balkans makes the region particularly attractive for organized crime activities such as trafficking drugs, people and weapons.”

 “The region is situated between the biggest drug producer countries and war zones and Western Europe, the main destination for drug and human traffickers and refugees.”
The project he was involved in has developed a comprehensive database on illegal activities most often associated with organized crime, which will help increase knowledge of this complex form of crime. While it focused on Southern Europe, it has implications for decision makers and policy experts in other regions and in the United States to better understand trends in organized crime and how the groups are transnationally connected, he said.