In less than one month, two migrant children have died in United States custody. An 8-year-old Guatemalan child detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection died at a hospital in New Mexico, the agency reported Tuesday.
Initially, CBP said the boy died shortly after midnight on Christmas Day. But early Wednesday, it issued a lengthy, revised version of events that put the boy’s time of death at 11:48 p.m. on Monday, Christmas Eve.
The agency did not identify the boy, but in a statement, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) gave his name as Felipe Alonzo-Gomez. Castro, chairman-elect of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said that “many questions remain unanswered, including how many children have died in CBP custody.”
The child’s death came 17 days after 7-year-old Jakelin Caal, another Guatemalan national, died Dec. 8 of dehydration and shock less than 36 hours after she was apprehended by border agents.
Under guidelines established after the government waited several days to inform Congress about Jakelin’s death, CBP agreed to notify lawmakers within 24 hours of a death of anyone in its custody and issue a media statement an hour after that. Notifications also must be issued to nongovernmental organizations that work with migrants and others.
CBP Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan said the Border Patrol would conduct health checks of all children in its “care and custody,” whether they arrived in the United States as part of a family or were unaccompanied. The health reviews will focus on children under 10.
The new statement did not say how many children would be assessed, but they could number in the thousands.
CBP also said it was looking into a variety of options to relieve overcrowding in its facilities in the El Paso sector, which includes El Paso County in far western Texas and all of New Mexico.
Details surrounding the child’s death
In its new timeline, issued at 12:37 a.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, CBP said the boy was apprehended with his father about 1 p.m. on Dec. 18, a little more than three miles west of the Paseo Del Norte port of entry. The agency said they were brought to the Paseo Del Norte processing center a little after 4:30 p.m., where they were given hot food, snacks, juice and water. Agents checked on their welfare six times, CBP said.
On Thursday, they were taken to the El Paso Border Patrol station, where they were held for two days and provided food, water and showers, CBP said. Agents checked on their welfare 17 times, the agency said. Shortly after 1 a.m. Sunday, they were taken to the Alamogordo Border Patrol station to “finalize processing,” CBP said.
The boy began to show signs of illness Monday morning and was taken to Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center in Alamogordo, N.M. He was tested for strep throat but prepared for release with a diagnosis of a common cold and given Tylenol.
But when caregivers noticed a fever of 103 degrees, he was held for more observation before being released with a prescription for an antibiotic and Ibuprofen.
The boy and his father were taken to a holding facility at the Highway 70 checkpoint, and the child was given the medications about 5 p.m. About 7 p.m., the boy vomited. His father declined further medical assistance, CBP said.
He became lethargic about 10 p.m. and was taken back to the hospital. On the way, he began to vomit again and lost consciousness. Doctors were unable to revive him at the hospital, and he was declared dead at 12 minutes to midnight. The cause of death is not known. An autopsy is planned.
“This is a tragic loss. On behalf of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, our deepest sympathies go out to the family,” McAleenan said.
‘Knowing everything I know, I’m not shocked’
The Guatemalan Foreign Ministry called for an investigation “in accordance with due process.”
An investigation into CBP actions will be conducted by the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility, the CBP news release said. The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general and Congress have been notified, it said.
The Guatemalan government was notified, and the father has met with consular officials at the Alamogordo station, CBP said. He also has spoken with his wife in Guatemala, the agency said.
The hospital said in a statement that “privacy regulations prevent us from sharing information about any individual patient. ... Our thoughts and prayers are with this family during this very difficult time.”
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security appropriations subcommittee, said in an interview that “the reality is that a detention center is no place for a child, particularly a sick child. When that child was determined to be ill, had a 103-degree fever, why they would send that child back to a detention center, which is really not fit for even a well child?
“That’s something that we’re looking into, because that policy or whatever caused them to send that child back has to be changed.”
In a tweet directed at Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Rep. J. Luis Correa (D-Calif.) said: “This is the second child this month. What is going on at @DHS.gov? Does @HouseHomeland have to start subpoenaing you to get the truth?”
Ruby Powers, a Houston-based lawyer and member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the boy’s death is not unexpected given the difficult conditions that immigrants and their children face on the journey north to the United States and the way authorities shuttle families between facilities.
“There’s a lack of ownership of the detainee, thinking they won’t be in their hands very long, moving them along to the next location, and that is where the lack of care can occur,” she said. “I know I’m supposed to be shocked, but knowing everything I know, I’m not shocked.”
The most recent death highlighted the stalemate over President Trump’s demand that Congress approve additional money for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, a standoff that has shut down parts of the federal government for four days. Trump said again Tuesday that there will be no change until his demands are met.
“I can’t tell you when the government is going to reopen,” he told reporters in an Oval Office appearance on Christmas morning. “I can tell you it’s not going to be open until we have a wall, a fence, whatever they’d like to call it. I’ll call it whatever they want. But it’s all the same thing. It’s a barrier from people pouring into our country.”
What happens next?
CBP said in its statement that it is developing “surge options” with Immigration and Customs Enforcement aimed at getting more families and children out of CBP custody in the El Paso Border Patrol sector. That includes working with nongovernmental organizations to house children and families.
The El Paso sector has seen a huge increase in the numbers of families arriving and seeking asylum. Annunciation House, a nonprofit that provides shelter and food for migrants after their release by ICE, has been overwhelmed in recent days.
ICE released more than 200 people at an El Paso bus station without warning on Sunday. Similar numbers were released Monday and Tuesday, and hundreds more are expected Wednesday and Thursday officials have said.
CBP also said it is seeking medical help from the Defense Department and other agencies for the large numbers of children and families in custody. The agency said it is reviewing its policies for caring for children under 10, including at intake and when they are held for more than 24 hours.
Court orders prevent CBP from holding children for more than 72 hours. But officials have acknowledged that they sometimes move children from one holding facility to another to avoid going over the 72-hour limit. The child who died in Alamogordo had been held by CBP for more than 130 hours before he died.
Jakelin’s family has disputed CBP reports that the child went several days without food and water before she died, saying she was healthy when she arrived in the United States. In a news conference earlier this month, a migrant advocate said the girl’s father, 29-year-old Nery Caal, had told him that Jakelin was healthy and had no preexisting conditions.
“He’s been very clear, very consistent that his daughter was healthy, and his daughter very much wanted to come with him,” said Ruben Garcia, founder and executive director of Annunciation House, an El Paso-based nonprofit that helps migrants.
The symptoms the 8-year-old boy exhibited are similar to the ones Jakelin showed before she died.
More than a day before she died, Jakelin, her father and 161 other Central American migrants crossed the U.S. border outside Antelope Wells, N.M., seeking to turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents.
The Department of Homeland Security has said that the girl did not show signs of health problems during a routine check conducted when she and her father were taken into custody.
“The initial screening revealed no evidence of health issues. During the screening, the father denied that either he or his daughter were ill. This denial was recorded on Form I-779 signed by the father,” the DHS account said. It added that they were offered food and water and had access to restrooms. The form was in English, but CBP officials said agents provided an oral translation.
The family’s attorneys have said that it was “unacceptable” to have Jakelin’s father sign a document in a language that he did not understand.
Jakelin’s body was returned to Guatemala on Monday.
Moore reported from El Paso. Paul Schwartzman and Elyse Samuels in Washington contributed to this report.