Overwhelmed border officials beg government for help after 2nd child death

December 26, 2018

Border officials begged for medical help from the Coast Guard and the Pentagon to screen illegal immigrants and asked both American and Mexican disease specialists to investigate a surge in sick migrants being caught at the border after another illegal immigrant child died in U.S. custody.

Every juvenile currently held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection is being rechecked for health issues, and a new review of CBP procedures is underway, authorities said after the latest death on Christmas Eve.

This one involved an 8-year-old boy who’d jumped the border with his father on Dec. 18. They had been shuttled to four different CBP facilities and one hospital during the next six days until his death.

CBP said more than two dozen “welfare checks” were performed during those six days, and it wasn’t until the final day that the boy showed any problems and was actually treated and released by a hospital just hours before falling ill again, and dying soon after being readmitted.

“This is a tragic loss,” CBP Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan said in a statement late Tuesday, adding, “our deepest sympathies go out to the family.”

The death has fueled an already raging debate over CBP’s handling of the massive surge of illegal immigrant families that’s straining Homeland Security’s abilities. Democrats in Congress and immigrant-rights activists across the country have said the blood of children is on the government’s hands, insisting bad policies and poor attitudes contributed to the deaths.

In the case of a 7-year-old girl earlier this month, she arrived at the border in remote New Mexico with her father and it took some time to get her to a processing facility. She began vomiting then stopped breathing en route, and agents managed to revive her twice, though she died a day later at a hospital after suffering liver and respiratory failure and a heart attack.

Administration officials say a long rough journey through Mexico must have compromised the girl, and she was in their custody for mere hours.

The new case is tougher to wave away.

Guatemalan officials said Tuesday that the father says the boy was healthy when they arrived and were arrested as part of a group of migrants just west of El Paso, Texas, in the early afternoon of Dec. 18.

Homeland Security officials, though, said they’ve seen a rise in the number of ill migrants crossing, with “dozens of people a day” in Border Patrol facilities needing to be given medical treatment.

The department has asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to look into what might happen, and has also asked Mexican authorities to investigate the shelters south of the border where migrants from Central America hole up, waiting for the okay from smugglers to attempt to cross.

Homeland Security said those shelters are likely causes of the spread of disease.

In the case of the boy who died this week, authorities said they spotted signs of flu and took him to the hospital where they tested him for strep throat. He was diagnosed with a common cold and given Tylenol. While being held for observation he ran a fever of 103 degrees, was prescribed amoxicillin and ibuprofen and then released.

He later vomited, but his father refused more medical attention, saying the boy was actually improving. Hours later a Border Patrol agent said the boy had “glassy eyes” and he was taken back to Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center, again vomiting and losing consciousness along the way, officials said.

He was declared dead little more than 40 minutes later.

Congressional Democrats vowed to investigate when they take control of the House next year.

“It is incumbent upon Congress to ask serious questions about what happened and who bears responsibility,” said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, who is poised to become majority leader in the new Congress.

An internal CBP review is already underway for the deaths of the girl and the boy this month, and the Homeland Security inspector general had announced an investigation into the girl’s death.

A Homeland Security official said deaths of children in CBP custody are rare, and said before this month it had been a decade since the previous one.

Officials suggested the problem lay south of the border, in the smugglers encouraging a surge of migrants, and particularly families with young children, to make the trip from Central America to the U.S., convinced they can take advantage of lax policies to gain an illegal foothold in the U.S.

“We are doing all we can to handle this flood as humanely and professionally as possible,” an official said. “But those cartels and advocacy groups have continued to encourage these groups to enter the country illegally and in often times very remote, very dangerous areas, and it’s putting people at risk, it’s putting people in danger.”

The official said they’ve been pleading with Congress to change laws to cut down on abuses of the asylum process and to allow illegal immigrant families to be held in detention, making it easier to deport them.

If people in Central America see their relatives and neighbors fail to successfully enter the U.S., they will stop coming, the government hopes.

That’s the same approach the Obama administration took in 2014 and 2015 to deal with an earlier surge of families but this time it’s drawn far more outrage.

The Homeland Security official who briefed reporters Wednesday but would not allow himself to be identified said it’s time for action.

“We have been sounding the alarm on this for months and we’ve been seeking additional support, action, from Congress and the courts to deal with this. We have yet to see that assistance,” the official said. “We have been doing all we can under our authorities to handle this strain.”

The department released a timeline of events in the latest death beginning with the Dec. 18 early-afternoon arrest as part of a group of migrants snared just west of the El Paso border crossing.

They were kept in the field for more than three hours, CBP said, blaming the difficulty of finding transportation.

By late afternoon they were at a first processing center where they were given food and water and kept for two more days, then shipped to another CBP facility where they stayed for another two nights.

Between those two locations, they were given 23 welfare checks, which involves an agent eyeballing them and asking if they needed anything or if anything was wrong.

On Sunday, because of overcrowding at the El Paso facility they were in, they were shipped to a facility in New Mexico and on Monday six days after they were arrested CBP contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for a more permanent placement.

Just hours later on the morning of Christmas Eve an agent noticed the boy coughing and reported he had “glassy eyes.” Half an hour later they were taken to a hospital for the flu check.

The boy was diagnosed with a cold, given Tylenol and kept for observation, when he developed a 103-degree fever. He was treated with ibuprofen and amoxicillin and released in the middle of the afternoon, sent to a temporary facility at a Border Patrol checkpoint, had a meal and were given a dose of the medications.

At 7 p.m., still at the checkpoint, the boy vomited. Agents cleaned up the vomit but say the father refused further medical assistance.

At 10 p.m. the child was observed to be lethargic and since no agent on duty had emergency medical skills, he was taken back to the hospital. He vomited and lost consciousness in the hour between his condition emerging and his arrival at the hospital, and was pronounced dead about 40 minutes after arrival.

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