A 7-year-old girl from Guatemala suffering from dehydration died hours after she and her father were taken into custody by Border Patrol agents at the US–Mexico border last week, a Guatemalan consulate official told BuzzFeed News.
The girl and her 29-year-old father, identified as Jakelin Caal and Nery Caal respectively, were part of a group of 163 people who crossed the border illegally and approached agents on the night of Dec. 6 near Lordsburg, New Mexico, to surrender.
About eight hours after being taken into US Border Patrol custody, the girl began to have seizures and was found to have a body temperature of 105.7 degrees, prompting officials to call emergency medical responders and fly her to a hospital in El Paso, Texas, a US Customs and Border Protection spokesman said. She died less than 24 hours later.
"It's always regrettable when someone dies, but it's even worse when it's a child," Guatemalan General Consul Tekandi Paniagua told BuzzFeed News.
CBP officials confirmed several details of the girl's death to BuzzFeed News, adding that the trip north for migrants exposes them not only to the natural elements, but to drug cartels, human smugglers, and other risks.
"As we have always said, traveling north is extremely dangerous," a spokesman with the Department of Homeland Security said. "Unfortunately, despite our best efforts and the best efforts of the medical team treating the child, we were unable to stop this tragedy from occurring."
According to a CBP report sent to Democratic congressional staffers, the girl appeared to not have eaten or drank water for several days. The news was first reported by the Washington Post.
CBP officials did not release details of the girl's death last week, until it provided them to the Post.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Friday that the girl's death was "heart-wrenching."
"You know this is just a very sad example of the dangers of this journey. This family chose to cross illegally," she told Fox News.
"What happened here was that they were about 90 miles away from where we could process them. They came in such a large crowd it took our Border Patrol folks a couple times to get them all," she said. "We gave immediate care. We’ll continue to look into the situation, but again, I cannot stress enough how dangerous this journey when migrants choose to come here illegally.”
According to the report sent to congressional staffers, the hospital's initial findings for the girl's cause of death were septic shock, fever, and dehydration. Results of an autopsy were not expected to be completed for several weeks.
After news of the girl's death was reported, Democratic lawmakers said they planned to ask the Office of Inspector General to look into the death, as well as have the House Judiciary Committee demand answers about how the incident was handled.
Border authorities have seen an increase in families along the southwest border in recent months. In November, Border Patrol agents apprehended more than 25,000 family members, an all-time high since the agency started tracking families in Oct. 2012.
"Every year the Border Patrol saves hundreds of people who are overcome by the elements between our ports of entry," the DHS spokesman said. "Once again, we are begging parents to not put themselves or their children at risk attempting to enter illegally."
The paths many immigrants take to the United States have increasingly become longer and more dangerous, putting immigrants at a higher risk, Paniagua said. Children are at greater risk due to the conditions of the trek.
"The path to the US is increasingly complicated and dangerous and kids are most likely to suffer tragedies such as this because they are more vulnerable," Paniagua told BuzzFeed News. "Many times the supplies [families] carry are not enough."
Earlier this week, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that up until the last decade the majority of people who crossed into the US illegally were single adult males. Families and unaccompanied minors now make up the majority, and represented up to 59% of border arrests or people who went to ports of entry without proper documentation in November.
"This is clearly both a border security and humanitarian crisis," McAleenan said.
Border Patrol stations and ports of entry were constructed to hold single adults and not to handle families and children, he said.
In recent days CBP has reported seeing large groups of immigrants at the border, many of them families. On Thursday, Border Patrol agents in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley apprehended 113 undocumented immigrants, most of them families and unaccompanied children.
CBP's Office of Professional Responsibility will be investigating the death to make sure all policies were followed.
7-year-old Jakelin Caal’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.