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The Death of a 16-year old in CBP Custody Was No Accident

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Deterrence-Only Policy to Blame

Yesterday, ProPublica released a deeply disturbing video documenting that the death of 16-year old Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vazquez while in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody last May was a preventable tragedy. 

The horrifying details reveal that CBP lied about what happened and covered up their actions. This brazen attempt to whitewash their responsibility has been exposed not by CBP’s internal accountability mechanisms, but by local law enforcement and ProPublica’s investigative journalism to unearth the real story. The horrifying news and CBP’s complicity in the coverup shines a light on the agency’s culture of impunity. It’s a vicious reminder why we need to go beyond basic calls for accountability at CBP to insist on a full overhaul of the agency, its culture, its practices, and its leadership. 

This death is both part of a pattern and a direct result of policy. Ten migrants are known to have died in DHS custody this year under this administration, and at least two were children, including Carlos. This weekend, December 8, will mark the one-year anniversary of the death of 7 year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin in custody in El Paso, which garnered national attention.  In the spring the Trump administration decided to intentionally hold minors in dangerous and deadly detention conditions as part of their ongoing deterrence-only strategy and effort to send a “tough” message. As a November Washington Post story revealed

When thousands of migrant children ended up stranded in U.S. Border Patrol stations last spring, President Trump’s administration characterized the crisis as a spontaneous result of the record crush of migrants overwhelming the U.S. immigration system. But the backup also was a result of policy decisions that officials knew would ensnare unaccompanied minors in bureaucratic tangles and leave them in squalid conditions … The government knew the moves would strain child shelters, according to documents and current and former officials, but it was aimed at sending a message to Central American migrants: Coming to the United States illegally has consequences.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director at America’s Voice:

Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vazquez’s needless death is part of a larger pattern at CBP and the latest reminder why the agency’s culture of impunity needs to be challenged and changed. It’s a horrifying example of how the Trump administration’s desire to send a tough deterrence-only message to asylum seekers and migrants is not only cruel and chaotic, but has led to a mounting body count. 

In a normal agency and normal administration, a thorough investigation would be conducted, procedures would be overhauled and people would be fired. But with this president and this DHS leadership, we expect none of that. Still, Congress and the American public must do what this administration and agency refuse to do and insist on a “truth and reconciliation” style effort at accountability, transparency, and real reform at CBP. Only with such a response will we enact a meaningful set of changes that collectively say ‘never again’ to the cruelty and callousness that is being done in our name.

  • For more background, read this DHS Watch deep dive on CBP’s culture and the need for real reform and accountability: see here


  • Read the November 2019 Washington Post story, “A Trump administration strategy led to the child migrant backup crisis at the border” here


  • Read and watch more from ProPublica here