Texas lawmakers press border patrol over girl’s death
WASHINGTON - House Democrats on Friday sharply questioned the border patrol’s handling of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died last week after being detained in a remote desert border crossing in New Mexico, about 120 miles west of El Paso.
The incident, first disclosed in press reports Thursday, has intensified scrutiny of the border patrol’s child and family detention policies, as well as the decision of Customs and Border Protection officials to hold off on notifying Congress, as required by law.
The criticism mounted Friday as new details emerged of the death of Jakelin Caal Maquin, who was detained along with her father the night of December 6 after crossing the border illegally with a large group of people.
Her death, reportedly of dehydration and shock after an arduous desert crossing, also has roiled the debate over the Trump administration’s asylum policies and heightened the stakes in a potential government shutdown next Friday over funding for a border wall.
“This death raises significant questions about the conditions in CBP’s short-term holding facilities, and the general suitability of such facilities for families and children,” a group of Democratic leaders, including San Antonio Democrat Joaquin Castro, said in a letter Friday to Homeland Security Acting Inspector General John Kelly. “We are also troubled by the fact that we learned of this incident from the Washington Post, rather than through congressional notification as required under Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appropriations laws.”
In a statement Friday, CBP officials said they immediately notified the Guatemalan government following the girl’s death. However they said they did not issue a public statement “out of respect for the family of the deceased.”
But under fire from Democrats and immigrant activists, CPB officials announced that the Office of Professional Responsibility and the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General would conduct a review of the agency’s disclosure and notification policies.
Officials also defended the border patrol’s handling of the girl and her father, saying they did “everything in their power” to save the girl after her father notified them of her distress at a remote forward operating base near the Antelope Wells port of entry, 94 miles from the nearest border patrol station in Lordsburg, New Mexico.
The girl died early Saturday morning, a day and a half later, at the Providence Children’s Hospital in El Paso, where she was flown by helicopter after a long bus ride to Lordsburg with her father and others in the group of detained immigrants.
Border patrol officials gave the following account:
Agents said they were first notified of her illness about 5 a.m. on December 7, about eight hours after a group of 163 immigrants was detained inside the sally port of the Antelope Wells base. There they were provided food and water. Officials said an initial overnight screening showed no evidence of sickness, and that the girl’s father claimed on government forms that she was in good health.
But just as a group of immigrants was boarding for the hour-and-a-half bus trip to Lordsburg, the girl’s father told agents that she was sick and vomiting. Agents in Antelope Wells notified officials in Lordsburg to prepare to provide emergency medical care and continued with the bus ride.
“Due to the remoteness of the area,” the CBP said in a statement, “meeting emergency medical personnel in Lordsburg was the best means to provide the child with emergency care.”
When the group arrived in Lordsburg shortly before 6:30 a.m., the girl was not breathing. Emergency Medical Technicians revived her twice, and it was determined she had a temperature of 105.7 degrees.
The decision was then made to airlift her to El Paso, where she arrived at 8:50 a.m. Her father followed her to the hospital in a border patrol vehicle. By 11 a.m., officials said, the girl went into cardiac arrest and had to be revived again. A CT scan showed brain swelling. She was breathing by machine and diagnosed with liver failure.
She died the next day at 12:35 a.m. with her father present.
“Despite our trained EMT agent’s best efforts fighting for Jakelin’s life, and the work of the Hidalgo County and Providence Children’s Hospital medical teams treating her, we were unable to rescue her,” CPB Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said in a statement Friday. “The agents involved are deeply affected and empathize with the father over the loss of his daughter.”
In their letter to Kelly, Democratic lawmakers questioned the appropriateness of holding children in Border Patrol stations, which they said, “were never designed to hold children.”
They noted also that in an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, McAleenan testified that the agency’s short-term holding cells are “incompatible” with increased family migration and large numbers of unaccompanied children.
Castro, the incoming chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, further questioned why McAleenan did not disclose the girl’s death in his testimony before the Senate on Tuesday - four days after she died.
Castro, who will be the chairman of the Texas Democratic delegation, said the episode also raises questions about Trump’s hard-line policies for asylum seekers. He cited a recent Homeland Security Inspector General report finding that the Trump administration’s policy of limiting asylum seekers at ports of entry forces families to cross the border between ports of entry, sometimes after making dangerous treks across the desert.
“This is a humanitarian crisis and we have a moral obligation to ensure these vulnerable families can safely seek asylum, which is legal under immigration and international law, at our borders,” Castro said. “We can and must do better as a nation.”
McAleenan said he welcomes the scrutiny.
“We cannot stress enough the dangers posed by traveling long distances, in crowded transportation, or in the natural elements through remote desert areas without food, water and other supplies,” he said. “No one should risk injury, or even death, by crossing our border unlawfully. This is why I asked Congress on Tuesday to change our laws so that the United States is not incentivizing families to take this dangerous path.”