The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) confirmed on Wednesday that a 10-year-old girl from Guatemala died while in U.S. custody last year, bringing the total number of known migrant child deaths to six in the last eight months. Democrats are calling for an investigation into the case, and because the agency had kept her death quiet since September of last year, some members are alleging a cover-up.
U.S. officials say the young girl came to the U.S. from El Salvador, and died on Sept. 29, 2018, making her the first migrant child to die under U.S. care since 2010, reports CBS News.
Mark Weber, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) told CBS News the girl had a history of congenital heart defects and arrived at an Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facility in San Antonio, Texas last March in a “medically fragile” state:
“Following a surgical procedure, complications left the child in a comatose state. She was transported to a nursing facility in Phoenix, Arizona for palliative care in May after release from a San Antonio hospital,” Weber said. “On September 26, she was transferred to an Omaha, Neb., nursing facility to be closer to her family. On September 29, the child was transported to Children’s Hospital of Omaha where she passed due to fever and respiratory distress.”
The news comes just days after another child, 16-year-old Carlos Gregorio Hernández Vásquez from Guatemala, died in a Texas detention center under the care of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). Not only is the exact cause of his death unclear (officials have yet to announce it), but CBP has yet to disclose why he was under their care in their first place; legally, the agency can only hold unaccompanied minors for up to 72 hours. By the time Carlos died, he had been detained by CBP for a week.
The teenager was diagnosed with the flu while with CBP but was not hospitalized, BuzzFeed reports. Carlos, who was seeking asylum in the U.S. to help provide for his family—particularly to help his special-needs brother, his family says—died on Monday.
To date, four other children have died under U.S. care in the last year: a 6-year-old, Juan de León Gutiérrez; an 8-year-old, Felipe Gómez Alonzo; 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin; and a 2-year-old Guatemalan child.
Responding to news of the 10-year-old child’s death last night, Joaquin Castro, a Texas congressman and chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told NBC News, “It’s outrageous that another child has died in government custody and that the Trump administration didn’t tell anybody.”
“They covered up her death for eight months, even though we were actively asking the question about whether any child had died or been seriously injured,” Castro continued.
An NBC investigation revealed that as of January 2019, 22 immigrants had died in ICE detention centers over the last two years. That number is undoubtedly higher now; we know at least four more children have died since NBC released its tally.
The original report also noted that many of the migrants who have died under American care were young—“half were not yet 45 years old,” NBC wrote.
In an op-ed published earlier this year, Bronx, N.Y.-based physician Chanelle Diaz wrote that the humanitarian crisis at the U.S./Mexico border was being exacerbated by dangerously neglectful medical care:
As a physician who has evaluated adults held in immigration jails, I have witnessed conditions in detention facilities that are unsafe for adults and deadly for children. Advocates have called attention to overcrowding, insufficient food and water, and abusive conditions at border processing facilities. Across the country, immigration jails are plagued by human and civil rights abuses and dangerously subpar access to medical care.
The preventable deaths of adults in immigration detention facilities are no less a crime than the deaths of children. According to an NBC analysis, there have been 22 deaths in ICE detention since Trump took office (not including Felipe, Jakelin, and Mariee). Roxsana Rodriguez, a transgender woman and asylum seeker from Honduras, died in ICE custody in May. An autopsy showed that she had been physically abused before her death.
Jose Azurdia, a refugee from Guatemala, died in a California detention facility after falling ill and vomiting. According to Human Rights Watch, a nurse did not want to treat him because “she did not want to get sick.” It turned out that Azurdia was having a heart attack.
This week, acting Department of Homeland Security chief Kevin McAleenan responded to the deaths of migrant children by calling for more funding to help prevent such tragedies.
“That’s why we’ve asked for more [resources],” he told lawmakers. “And we’ve asked for more authority to deal with it to prevent this crisis from happening in the first place and from the children being put at risk.”
But in his comments yesterday, Castro noted that Congress had already given immigration agencies billions of dollars. In fact, as of May this year, the Trump administration has sought $18.5 billion in funding to be spent at the southern border (even as private ICE lockups charged detained asylum-seekers $11 for tubes of toothpaste).
“They want to use [the money] on a wall instead of spending it to make sure that people don’t die,” Castro said.