A 5-month-old girl who traveled with the migrant caravan has been hospitalized with pneumonia after spending five days inside freezing cells operated by border authorities in California, her mother said.
A. Portillo, the girl's mother (who asked to be identified only by her first initial because she is fleeing from an abusive partner), said she jumped a low part of the border fence with her daughter on Dec. 12 near Tijuana before being detained by Border Patrol agents.
The 23-year-old mother said she and her daughter were then placed in holding cells that migrants call hieleras, or iceboxes. The holding cells have been criticized by human rights advocates who describe them as "often poor and in several critical respects identical to those previously found by US courts to be in violation of [Customs and Border Protection's] obligations and prior commitments."
The girl had been taking the antibiotic amoxicillin, but Portillo said she wasn't allowed to keep the medication in detention. She described the temperatures inside the cells as "freezing."
Portillo told agents that her daughter was sick shortly after being detained, but they told Portillo it was normal and that everyone coming into the holding cells was ill. She wasn't allowed to get new medication or see a doctor.
"I said I needed a hospital because her breathing was getting worse," Portillo told BuzzFeed News. "The agents told me I wasn't in a position to be asking for anything and that they didn't tell me to come to the United States."
The case comes on the heels of the death of Jakelin Caal, a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died in the custody of Customs and Border Protection on Dec. 8. The death has reignited the criticism over the Trump administration's decision to limit the number of asylum-seekers, a process known as metering, and the conditions people are held in.
After two days of being at a facility near the San Ysidro port of entry, Portillo said she and her daughter were moved to another facility in San Diego where they remained in similarly cold holding cells for three days. With a tracking device strapped to her ankle by immigration authorities, Portillo was dropped off at a church that works with recently released migrants. She flew to North Carolina to be reunited with family.
When mother and daughter landed in Charlotte, the baby started to throw up. At first, Portillo thought she was sick from flying. By Tuesday morning, however, the infant's temperature had reached102.7 degrees, Portillo said.
With her family in tow, Portillo rushed to a hospital where doctors diagnosed the baby with pneumonia.
"I never thought she would get this sick," Portillo said. "But at the same time, I feel blessed because God has always held me in his hand and I know my daughter will get better."
A person at the hospital whom Portillo believed was a social worker asked her about the conditions they were held in, noting that she had never heard of people being held in such cold conditions.
"It's punishment for what we did," Portillo said she told her.
Portillo said she left Honduras because of domestic violence and threats from "El 18," a gang that dominated her neighborhood.
She endured four years of beatings at the hands of the baby's father, but in September Portillo said she couldn't take it anymore. After one particular beating, she saw her 8-year-old daughter trembling nearby.
Her daughter's trembling pushed Portillo to file a domestic violence complaint against the baby's father, but it only resulted in bringing her more problems. He was placed on probation and when he violated it in October, the police arrived to arrest him.
During the course of the officers' visit to their home, the police also arrested four members of El 18 who had been patrolling the neighborhood with guns.
The leader of the gang told Portillo that unless the men were released, she had 24 hours to leave or she'd be killed. She left her 8-year-old daughter with her grandmother and went to join the caravan with her baby days after the group entered Mexico.
She hitchhiked, took buses, and walked through Mexico before reaching Tijuana with the intention of asking for asylum in the US. Portillo put her name on a list managed by other asylum-seekers, but was told she'd have to wait a month and three weeks before she could ask the US for refuge.
After waiting for weeks, Portillo chose to do what other migrants before her have done when US border authorities tell them to wait — she jumped the border fence and then asked for asylum.
Today she is no longer on a dangerous journey toward the US or in cold border holding cells, but she's surrounded by the beeping of hospital machines and her daughter's coughs.
"I'm a little worried about how I'm going to pay for all of this, but it doesn't matter as long as she's okay," Portillo said. "I have my whole life to pay."