On Thursday, the Washington Post first reported that a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl had died while in the custody of US Customs and Border Protection, having been apprehended after crossing the border in a remote part of New Mexico with her father, as part of a group of 163 migrants.
Emergency responders first attended to the girl eight hours after she entered CBP custody. According to CBP, by this point the girl’s temperature was 105.7 degrees Fahrenheit, she had suffered several seizures and had stopped breathing. Although she was initially revived, she died less than two days later, having suffered liver failure and a cardiac arrest in hospital.
The death of a young child in government custody is horrifying and tragic, but the Trump administration’s response has also been chilling. Asked by a reporter if the administration was taking any responsibility for the girl’s death, the White House spokesman said “does the administration take responsibility for a parent taking a child on a trek through Mexico to get to this country? No.”
First, the administration is partly responsible for the father’s decision to take his child on a dangerous journey across the border. Migrants routinely report that they attempted to enter the US at an official border and were turned away, forced to either wait at the border indefinitely, return to the danger and hardship they fled or attempt a riskier, unofficial crossing.
The desperation experienced by many migrants is so great that Trump’s stricter border policies are not an effective deterrent. Instead, the threat of arrest, summary deportations and family separations push people to attempt more dangerous crossings. This would help explain why last year the number of people killed attempting to cross the US-Mexico border rose even as overall crossings fell.
“This group was driven to an impossible choice: Present at a port and wait months with no guarantee of a fair hearing, or cross on your own and hope border agents will take you in safely. Unfortunately, there is no safety in the custody of an agency that has a long history of torture and abuse against migrants,” said Jonathan Ryan, an executive director at the immigration nonprofit RAICES in Texas.
“This was a predictable, preventable tragedy born of an immigration system that is set-up not to harbor those seeking refuge in our country, but to deny them asylum, torture them as they seek it, and finally deport them to death and danger,” he added.
Second, let’s be clear: when someone dies in government custody, that death is the responsibility of the government. After all, when the child and her father were detained, the father lost the ability to make his own decisions regarding his daughter’s care.
The Department of Homeland security said in a statement that agents “took every possible step to save the child’s life under trying circumstances”. Even if this is true, one might hope for the kind of administration that would tell reporters that they were reviewing everything that happened to identify any mistakes that were made or lessons that could be learned so that next time – and there will be a next time – they have a sick child in their care they have a better chance of saving them.
Instead, the DHS too was more interested in shifting blame onto the father. “As we have always said, traveling north illegally is extremely dangerous… we are begging parents to not put themselves or their children at risk attempting to enter illegally,” the statement said.
The more pertinent question is not whether the child crossing was doing so “illegally” but whether border patrol agents acted within the law and according to their own guidelines. On a call with reporters, customs and border patrol officials declined to discuss whether they had reported the death to the House and Senate Appropriations Committee within 24 hours, as they are obligated to do.
The organisation’s internal guidelines also specify that children must have constant access to fresh drinking water, must be presented with a snack upon arrival, regular meals, juice and milk. Migrants and immigration journalists report that this is rarely the case.
“When migrants first cross the border, they are almost always brought to hieleras — “ice boxes” with frigid temperatures where people are kept for days sleeping on concrete floors, drinking putrid water, receiving scant provisions… Our clients have described the hieleras as among the most traumatic part of the immigration system,” said Ryan of RAICES.
The CBP officials said that when the child first arrived at the organisation’s remote forward operating base at 10pm on 6 December, she and the other migrants held there had access to water. The border patrol agents reportedly screened her visually for any obvious medical conditions and cleared her, and the father signed a form attesting that she was medically fine. (The form was in English.) There were no medical staff on site, and only four agents present.
The CBP told the Washington Post that the girl had “reportedly not eaten or consumed water for several days”. It is not clear if she had water or anything to eat at the forward operating base. At 4am, she was transported with her father by bus to a border patrol station.
When I asked a doctor (who declined to be named) how likely it is that a child would present no medical symptoms just eight hours before her temperature reached 105.7, she said that some conditions such as sepsis or meningitis can indeed present like that. Someone without medical training might also not be able to identify signs of dehydration: “She would probably have just looked exhausted, quiet or scared”. But, crucially, the doctor added that “anyone with a bone of common sense would know that a young child without food or water for days would need medical attention.”
At 5am the following morning, while the father and daughter were on the bus, her father told officers that the girl had started vomiting and they called ahead to ensure she received medical care on her arrival. By the time they arrived at 6.30 am her father said she had stopped breathing, and emergency services were called and arrived soon after. She was evacuated to hospital at 7.30 am and died the following day.
The least one could hope for in the aftermath of a child’s death is that the Department of Homeland Security might seek to make its border policies safer and more humane. But the administration’s response makes clear that saving migrant lives are not its priority.