Inquiries launched into death of migrant girl in U.S. custody

December 15, 2018

A Guatemalan girl and her father were part of a large group of migrants who illegally crossed from Mexico into New Mexico in a remote stretch of desert near Antelope Wells, where they surrendered on the night of Dec. 6 to U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents.

Some seven hours later, Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin, 7, was put on a bus to the nearest Border Patrol station, at Lordsburg, but soon began vomiting. By the end of the two-hour drive, she had stopped breathing.

Jakelin hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for days, her father later told U.S. officials.

Suffering from apparent shock and dehydration, the girl was revived by emergency personnel and airlifted to an El Paso hospital where she died.

The girl’s death is the latest evidence of the desperation of a growing number of Central American families and children showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border, often hoping to claim asylum. That night, as elsewhere when large groups of parents with children appear at remote border outposts, U.S. agents strained to accommodate the needs of those in their custody in that barren span of the New Mexico boot heel.

What unfolded over the next eight hours, as Jakelin’s condition deteriorated but went unnoticed by agents and perhaps her father, is now the subject of an internal investigation at the Department of Homeland Security. And congressional Democrats are promising an inquiry of their own.

“I am heartbroken by the death of this young child,” Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said Friday on Twitter. “We need nothing short of a full investigation into this tragedy.”

U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., said, “I’m joining with my Congressional colleagues to demand answers from this administration about how a young child died in CBP custody.”

An investigation should be the bare minimum, said Allegra Love , executive director of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project. The country needs to recognize “how our policies that criminalize refugee migration contributes to these tragedies,” Love said Friday.

A letter sent jointly Friday by Democratic members of the New Mexico congressional delegation and two congressmen from Texas to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and other Trump administration officials says, “We remain deeply concerned about the administration’s anti-immigrant enforcement policies against individuals who pose no threat to the nation, as well as the administration’s policies and practices that may be causing asylum seekers to attempt a dangerous crossing between ports of entry.”

The girl’s death was a “tragic situation,” a White House spokesman said Friday, adding that the White House was not to blame and that Congress should “disincentivize” migrants from making the arduous journey through Mexico to reach the U.S., the Washington Post reported.

Was the administration “taking any responsibility for the girl’s death?” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley was asked by a reporter.

“Does the administration take responsibility for a parent taking a child on a trek through Mexico to get to this country? No,” Gidley responded. The death was “100 percent preventable,” said Gidley, who called for congressional action to stem illegal border crossings.

Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection officials held an “on background” conference call Friday with reporters, during which one official said, “It’s a very unfortunate situation. Sometimes aliens do die in the desert.”

The term “alien” is often viewed as pejorative by immigration rights advocates. The term “on background” means the officials being quoted cannot be identified by name.

The girl and her father were among 163 migrants, including about 50 unaccompanied children, who had traveled for some time through the Mexican desert. Officials emphasized the remoteness of the location and that those taken into custody had access to food and water, although it’s not clear whether Jakelin ate or drank anything while in custody.

The migrants surrendered to border agents when the port of entry at Antelope Wells was closed, well after 9 p.m., said the officials, who indicated that groups that size trying to cross the border are not unusual.

The girl’s father, identified as Nery Caal, 29, could have brought the girl’s condition to the attention of Border Patrol agents on the bus transporting the group to Lordsburg at any time, the officials said.

“There is no indication that it was lack of attention [by agents] that resulted in this,” one official said. “The questions were asked [about the girl’s condition],” the officials said. “There was no indication she had any health conditions.”

An intake form obtained by the Associated Press and signed by the father indicated she wasn’t sick. “Claims good health,” the form reads.

Several trips were required to transport members of the large group to a place in Lordsburg where they could be processed, Nielsen told Fox News. Homeland Security expressed its condolences to the family in a statement. A single bus is available in Lordsburg for these types of transports, officials said during the conference call.

An autopsy has been performed to determine the girl’s cause of death, the El Paso County Medical Examiner’s Office told the Post on Friday, but results could take six to eight weeks.

CBP said Friday it didn’t immediately publicize the death out of respect for the family but is reviewing its disclosure practices. CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan didn’t mention the girl’s death when he was questioned by senators this week on border issues.

Officials speaking on Friday’s conference call said a complete internal investigation into the girl’s death will be done “to ensure there was no wrongdoing and policies were followed.”

“We take the protection of human life very seriously,” one official told reporters.

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