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After Six Deaths, Is DHS Doing Enough to Ensure the Health and Safety of Children in Their Care?

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Congress Conducts Oversight Today

Today, the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Border Security is holding a hearing, “Assessing the Adequacy of DHS Efforts to Prevent Child Deaths in Custody.” Under the Trump administration, six children have died under DHS custody or just after release from custody. This is the same federal department with agents who are part of a secret Facebook group of 9,500 members which, according to ProPublica, is “for current and former Border Patrol agents,” some of whom “joked about the deaths of migrants,” and have responded with indifference and wisecracks to the post of a news story about a 16-year-old Guatemalan migrant who died in May while in custody at a Border Patrol station in Weslaco, Texas.” Even the current Border Patrol Chief, Carla Provost, was once part of this Facebook group.  

These deaths come after more than a decade in which no child had died in DHS border custody. Multiple DHS Inspector General and other reports have identified serious failures by DHS to ensure the health and safety of children and adults in their custody. Today’s hearing will ask, “Has DHS done enough keep children healthy and safe, and have they done enough to prevent another death?”  

Congressional Testimony, DHS Inspector General and Other Reports on Failures of DHS to Protect Health and Safety

There have been multiple congressional hearings regarding the appalling conditions of DHS detention facilities. In one House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing, Yazmin Juárez described the horrifying experience of arriving in the U.S. with a healthy two-year-old daughter (Mariee) and being detained at an ICE family detention facility where her daughter contracted an untreated life-threatening illness that caused her death just weeks after being released. Her mother Yazmin said, “Small children do not belong in detention. But if ICE’s detention center had just been safe and sanitary – and if they’d given my daughter the proper medical care she needed – Mariee might still be here today, preparing to celebrate her third birthday in August.” 

At another House Oversight Committee hearing, four members of Congress testified about what they witnessed during their visit to a border detention facility, describing horrific conditions. At that same hearing, another witness, Elora Mukherjee, Director of Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, spoke of her experience at the Clint border facility where she and colleagues interviewed dozens of detained children saying, “I was and I remain shaken to my core by what I witnessed at Clint.” Earlier, she told Buzzfeed, “I have never seen such appalling, degrading, inhumane circumstances in my 12 years representing children and families in immigration detention.”

Other lawyers described what they saw in their visits with children at a border detention facility, “flu and lice outbreaks were going untreated, and children were filthy, sleeping on cold floors, and taking care of one another because of the lack of attention from guards. Some of them had been in the facility for weeks.” 

The DHS Office of the Inspector General, in dry, bureaucratic terms, confirmed these observations, saying in a report:  

During our visits to five Border Patrol facilities and two ports of entry in the Rio Grande Valley, we…observed serious overcrowding and prolonged detention of unaccompanied alien children (UACs), families, and single adults that require immediate attention. Specifically, Border Patrol was holding about 8,000 detainees in custody at the time of our visit, with 3,400 held longer than the 72 hours generally permitted under the TEDS standards.  Of those 3,400 detainees, Border Patrol held 1,500 for more than 10 days.

The Children

Darlyn Cristabel Cordova-Valle, 10, El Salvador

According to CBS News, Darlyn crossed the border on her own and was detained near Hidalgo, Texas on March 1, 2018. She was sent to the hospital after complaining about chest pains, but was returned to DHS and transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services, who then transferred her to a shelter in San Antonio. By then, according to Health and Human Services, she was considered “medically fragile.” Darlyn was left in a coma following a surgical procedure, and then passed away on September 29, 2018 due to a fever and respiratory distress, according to the Los Angeles Times. Darlyn spent 6 months rotating between various sites under U.S. custody before getting transferred to a hospital in Omaha, Nebraska to be closer to family, which at that point was all too late. 

Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7, Guatemala 

Twelve hours after being apprehended by Border Patrol with her father, Jakelin was hospitalized after experiencing vomiting and a high temperature, according to NPR. The New York Times reports that Jakelin “would have been visibly sick for hours,” but representative Raul Ruiz states that “[t]here was no physical examination including a very basic vital signs that would have most likely identified that she had a fever… or a fast heart rate.” She was to an El Paso hospital where she passed away the next day on December 8, 2018. Vox details the multiple factors that could have contributed to Jakelin’s death. U.S. officials claimed that she had not been given food and water in the days preceding their arrival, but her father strongly denied this statement saying that she received sufficient food and water. Her father also noted that Jakelin had no prior health problems. The DHS OIG found “no misconduct or malfeasance by DHS personnel,” despite Ruiz detailing the lack of resources and conditions at shelters where there were “children laying on concrete floors, in very, very cold rooms, with the lights on all night, and being interrupted with loud noise, throughout the night.”

Felipe Gómez Alonzo, 8, Guatemala

Felipe and his father were detained at the border in mid-December and taken to several holding areas where, according to the Los Angeles Times, “families sleep on bare dirt.” The day before Felipe died, an agent noted his coughing, sore throat, and fever. He was hospitalized and held for 90 minutes, and released before he fell sick hours later and died on December 25, 2018. According to the New York Times, Felipe’s death “… highlighted the risks of keeping vulnerable children in what they called overcrowded, often cold facilities known as ‘hieleras,’ Spanish for ice boxes.”  

Juan de León Gutiérrez, 16, Guatemala

Juan was sent to Casa Padre, a federally contracted shelter, after crossing the border on his own on April 19, 2019, according to the Los Angeles Times. He was hospitalized shortly after his arrival and died nine days later after complications of Pott’s puffy tumor, according to NBC news, which can swell the frontal lobe. According to his mother, “her son never had any serious illness beyond colds or an occasional cough.” Juan was attempting to help his family after a drought affected his farming community. His mother says, “[t]he last time we talked he told me he hoped God would help us with salt or corn, or perhaps beans for us.” 

Wilmer Josué Ramírez Vásquez, 2½, Guatemala  

According to NPR, Wilmer was hospitalized for about a month before he died on May 14, 2019. Three days after he and his mother were taken into custody, he was transferred to a hospital in El Paso. According to Guatemalan consul, Wilmer had a high fever, difficulty breathing, and had been diagnosed with pneumonia. 

Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, 16, Guatemala
The Los Angeles Times reports that after being taken into custody on May 13, Carlos said he felt sick. Shortly after a nurse diagnosed him with the flu, he was found unresponsive on May 20, 2019. Carlos was not hospitalized and it is unclear how frequently he was checked during his final hours. The Los Angeles Times notes that “[i]t’s also not clear why Border Patrol didn’t transfer Carlos to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours, as required by law for youths who arrive at the border without parents.” ProPublica released surveillance footage of Carlos in his final moments which contradicts the original DHS report on his death.