Trump administration officials on Friday defended their actions in the death of a 7-year-old girl from Guatemala who died hours after she and her father were taken into custody by the Border Patrol in a remote part of New Mexico a week ago.
A Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official told reporters on a conference call that the girl’s 29-year-old father had signed a form that said that the girl, identified as Jakelin Caal, was not sick, and that the four Border Patrol agents supervising the group of 163 migrants they were with didn’t identify any health or safety concerns.
“The agents did as they were required to do according to policies and asked the questions they needed to ask of her and her father,” the official said. The official cannot be identified under the conditions of the call.
But a Guatemalan government official said the form was in English and that Border Patrol agents’ explanations of the form in Spanish also may have been inadequate, since the father speaks an indigenous Mayan language.
The CBP said Jakelin and her father were apprehended near the Antelope Wells Port of Entry, a remote border crossing, at about 9:15 p.m. Dec. 6. A CBP official said the girl had not eaten or drunk water for days, but that the group was offered water and food and had access to restrooms after being apprehended.
The one bus that was available to transport the 163 people to the Lordsburg Border Patrol Station, which is about 90 minutes away, started to make what would be multiple trips. When the father and the girl were about to be sent to the station on a bus leaving the area at 5 a.m., the father told officials his daughter was sick and was vomiting.
Guatemalan General Consul Tekandi Paniagua told BuzzFeed News that a Border Patrol medical technician gave her first aid until they arrived at the Lordsburg station. CBP officials declined to confirm whether this happened.
Because the area is so remote, Border Patrol agents believed the fastest way to get Jakelin to medical treatment was to continue on to the Lordsburg station, the CBP officials said.
“There wasn’t a lot agents could do other than call ahead to get a Border Patrol medical technician to get medical supplies on standby,” the official said.
CBP officials said agents asked that an EMT meet the bus at the station, but by the time the group arrived at about 6:30 a.m. the father told authorities his daughter was not breathing.
Border Patrol EMTs revived her twice, and at that point, she had a 105.9-degree fever. She was transported by helicopter to Providence Children’s Hospital in El Paso, Texas, where she died Dec. 8. The hospital said the preliminary cause of death was sepsis shock, but the results of an autopsy have not been released.
Paniagua said the father told Guatemalan officials that he believed Border Patrol agents did everything they could to keep his daughter alive.
Some senators on the Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Department of Homeland Security, lashed out at the agency, questioning why CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan did not mention the death when he testified before them on Tuesday, three days after Jakelin's death.
A Department of Homeland Security official told reporters McAleenan had not been briefed on Jakelin's death when he testified.
Former officials said the death was emblematic of larger problems with detention at the border.
“This incident highlights why the fixation on detention is wrong,” John Sandweg, former head of ICE under the Obama administration, told BuzzFeed News. “If not for the fixation on detention, this child would probably be alive.”
Advocates criticized a statement released by the Department of Homeland Security that emphasized the dangers of trying to enter the United States. “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,” the statement said. “No one should risk injury, or even death, by crossing our border unlawfully.”
That approach emphasizes the wrong issues.
“The problems for children and for families at these detention facilities have been well known for a long time, and I would say at this point the focus should be on what happened once that girl was in CBP’s custody. What happened? They want to make it about how she got there, but at least in the first instance, the question is what did they do when she was their responsibility?” said Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.
Earlier this week, McAleenan told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that the ports of entry are designed to process single adults, not families and children.
“We’ve worked with Congress to request additional support for child medical care, child mental health and welfare for those arriving, even in that short period of time that we’re interacting with these children,” McAleenan said. “It’s a critical area that we need to continue to improve.”
On Friday, Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General said it would investigate Jakelin's death. A final report will be made public at the end of the inquiry.