JUAREZ, Mexico — An 8-year-old Guatemalan boy who died last month in Customs and Border Protection custody wasn’t sick when he and his father left an immigrant shelter here shortly before being detained by CBP agents outside of El Paso, Texas, a shelter official told BuzzFeed News Wednesday.
Felipe Alonzo Gomez died in December while sick with influenza, after being held in CBP custody for a week. President Donald Trump has sought to blame the child’s death on his father, claiming in a tweet that Felipe was “very sick before they were given over to Border Patrol.”
But according to Blanca Alicia Rivera, who manages the Casa del Migrante shelter in Juarez, Gomez wasn’t sick when he and his father decided to cross the border between checkpoints on Dec. 18.
“Felipe was here. He was in perfect health condition,” Rivera said, adding that not only does the shelter have doctors on call to screen immigrants who come to the shelter, “we won’t let them leave if they’re sick.”
The Gomezes had initially arrived in Juarez with plans to ask for asylum at one of the official ports of entry along the US–Mexico border near El Paso. However, like hundreds of other asylum-seekers, they found themselves stuck waiting outside official border crossings due to CBP’s “metering” policy, which has sharply curtailed the number of asylum requests border officials process each day.
With overnight temperatures in Juarez dipping into the 30s, local officials have begun taking asylum-seekers like the Gomez family to the Casa del Migrante shelter to wait, sometimes for weeks, for the chance to be processed by CBP. While some opt to stay at the shelter, hundreds of others have decided to cross the border between the official crossing points, and then turn themselves over to CBP officials when they are apprehended — a decision that allows them to circumvent the asylum “metering” policy.
Although the Gomezes crossed the border into El Paso’s city limits, hundreds more have gone much further into the desert, crossing into remote parts of New Mexico and Arizona that are extremely dangerous. Gomez and his son were detained by CBP and Felipe was held in custody for a week, according to the agency. The 8-year-old was moved to several facilities during that time, including a remote detention area in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
On Christmas Eve, Felipe began to show signs of illness, and he was taken to a nearby hospital. Although he was initially released and taken to a CBP highway checkpoint for holding, he was returned to the hospital after his condition worsened. He died just before midnight on Christmas Eve.
Felipe is one of at least two children who have died in CBP’s custody in recent weeks. Seven-year-old Jakelin Caal died on Dec. 8 while in the agency’s custody, and at least one other migrant child nearly died from cardiac arrest in early November but was revived by hospital personnel in El Paso. All three children had been in the custody of CBP’s El Paso sector, which between November and December saw significant upticks in families crossing remote parts of the border to seek asylum in the US.
The Juarez Casa del Migrante has also seen significant increases in the number of immigrants, according to Rivera. On Tuesday night, more than 270 men, women, and children stayed in the shelter, nearly double the number of people who typically stay each night. In the last two months the shelter has served at least 4,000 immigrants, Rivera said.
Rivera also dismissed claims by Trump administration officials — including the president and his Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen — that immigrants coming to the border are bringing with them sickness and disease, overwhelming the capacities of the federal government. “We haven’t had any problems here, because we provide medical treatment,” she said.
Asked if the shelter has had any children or adults die while in its care, Rivera shook her head. “No, of course not,” she said. (BuzzFeed News was not able to confirm this claim.)
US Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents El Paso, warned that Congress will continue to press the Department of Homeland Security for answers about Gomez’s death. “As many questions remain unanswered about the circumstances surrounding Felipe’s tragic death, one thing is clear: Congress will continue to seek answers to ensure that every child and family receives proper medical care to stop more tragedies like this from happening again,” Escobar said.
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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