Deaths of 2 children raise doubts about US border agency
The deaths of two migrant children in just over two weeks raised strong new doubts Wednesday about the ability of U.S. border authorities to care for the thousands of minors arriving as part of a surge of families trying to enter the country.
An 8-year-old boy identified by Guatemalan officials as Felipe Alonzo Gomez died in U.S. custody at a New Mexico hospital on Christmas Eve after suffering a cough, vomiting and fever, authorities said. The cause is under investigation, as is the Dec. 8 death of another Guatemalan child, 7-yearold Jakelin Caal.
“There is a real failure here that we all need to reckon with,” said incoming Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat elected last month to represent El Paso in Congress. “We need to know how many other Jakelins and Felipes there have been.”
The U.S. government’s system for detaining migrants crossing the border is severely overtaxed. Authorities would not say how many children U.S. Customs and Border Protection is now holding. But they are seeing a sharp rise in families with children.
In the wake of the two deaths, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen asked the Coast Guard to study CBP’s medical programs and announced that all children who enter the agency’s custody will be given “more thorough” assessments.
Also, border authorities said that they conducted health checks in reaction to Felipe’s death on nearly all children in their custody. They did not disclose the results.
Nielsen blamed “a system that prevents parents who bring their children on a dangerous illegal journey from facing consequences for their actions.” The Trump administration contends it must detain more people to discourage other Central American families from trying to enter the country.
Felipe had been detained by U.S. border authorities for a week and moved between facilities with his father, officials said. The last place the boy was held – after the first of two visits to the hospital on the day he died – was a highway checkpoint in New Mexico.
Felipe’s father, Agustin Gomez, did not see any signs of illness from his son until Monday, according to Guatemalan consul Oscar Padilla, who spoke to Gomez on Wednesday. Felipe and his father had left Guatemala on Dec. 14 and were detained at the U.S-Mexico border four days later.
By its own regulations, CBP is supposed to detain people for no more than 72 hours before turning them over to other government agencies responsible for long-term detention. CBP facilities are typically spartan, with food, water and blankets but often no medical professionals, teachers or some of the other resources longer-term detention centers offer.