What Happened to the Migrant Baby CBP Called a ‘Potential Death’?

August 28, 2019

Four days ago, U.S. Customs and Border Protection released a stunning announcement notifying the public of the “potential death in custody” of a 6-month-old baby girl.

Since then, the agency tasked with enforcing immigration laws on the U.S. border hasn’t released a single word about the infant’s condition, location, or custodial status—a silence that immigration advocates and lawmakers consider deafening.

“Six-month-old children are innocent babies, and our government needs to treat them as such,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) told The Daily Beast. “While we have few details about this particular case, we should do everything possible to provide extensive medical assistance when needed so that no child dies at the border or in our custody.”

Others warned that the agency’s initial statement was indicative of broader mismanagement of the crisis at the nation’s southern border—or, even worse, amounted to a maladroit attempt to get out in front of yet another in-custody death of a migrant child.

“It’s really a symptom of the main issue, which is just persistent mismanagement of the border, resulting in more and more deaths,” said Ursela Ojeda, a policy adviser with the Women’s Refugee Commission’s migrant rights and justice program. “I’m quite worried that the agency that’s making this sort of press release is also in charge of the health and safety of migrant children and families.”

According to the agency’s first release, published on Saturday morning, the unnamed infant was detained by CBP shortly after she and her father crossed the Rio Grande into Texas alongside a group of 21 migrants in the early morning hours on Thursday. Eight hours later, medical staff at the agency’s central processing center assessed that she needed medical care, and the girl was transported to Edinburg Regional Children’s Hospital in Edinburg, Texas.

There, doctors determined that the girl needed to be medevaced to Driscoll Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi. With no more room in the medical helicopter, her father was transported to Driscoll by vehicle, a two-and-a-half-hour drive.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the young girl and her father during this difficult time,” CBP stated.

Since that announcement—hastily re-titled “CBP Statement on Hospitalization of Child in CBP Custody” after confusion over whether the infant had already died—the law enforcement agency tasked with patrolling the nation’s border has remained almost entirely silent on the girl’s condition.

When contacted for an update on Tuesday morning, an officer with CBP’s Rio Grande Valley Sector public affairs office said that he was “not allowed to speak on that right now.” Another CBP public affairs officer promised that an update would come “soon,” but could provide no timeline or details. Jason Marton, communications manager for Driscoll Children’s Hospital, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that he could not comment on the child’s case without her full name and birthdate, which CBP, citing confidentiality rules, did not release.

“Isn’t it horrible?” Ojeda asked, referring to CBP’s initial decision to describe the girl’s illness as a “potential death.” Immigration agencies are required by law to inform Congress and the public of in-custody deaths as a condition of their federal funding, but in the eyes of immigrant-rights advocates, CBP’s release came across as trying to get ahead of a story.

“It just feels so crass,” Ojeda said.

The only other public statement regarding the girl’s condition came from Mark Morgan, acting CBP commissioner, who told Fox & Friends host Griff Jenkins that while the case “truly is tragic,” it served as proof that the Trump administration’s plans to indefinitely detain migrant families are critical to dissuading people from attempting to enter the United States to begin with.

“This new Flores regulation that was just published on Friday, that we hope takes effect in 60 days, is so critical to stop this flow, to stop people from risking their lives,” Morgan said on Saturday, referring to President Donald Trump’s proposed termination of the Flores Settlement Agreement, which guarantees standards of care for undocumented minors in government custody. Under the proposed regulation—which already faces a legal challenge filed by 19 states and the District of Columbia—the government would be allowed to hold undocumented families in detention indefinitely.

“We want to stem the flow—we want to stop people from risking their lives,” Morgan said, emphasizing that the long-term detention camps will feature “a high degree of care for the families, specifically kids.”

But advocates, legal experts and lawmakers told The Daily Beast that the infant girl’s “potential death,” in CBP’s terms, is just further evidence that no length of detention is safe for children, particularly a baby.

“It’s incredibly sad,” said Megan McKenna, senior director of communications and community engagement at Kids In Need of Defense, a legal non-profit that advocates for unaccompanied children in the immigration system. While noting the absence of details regarding the girl’s condition, McKenna pointed to the Trump administration’s decisions to meter legal access to the U.S. border and force asylum seekers to “Remain In Mexico” while their cases are adjudicated as contributing to the poor health of people seeking to enter the country.

“Forcing people to wait in unsafe and unsanitary conditions in Mexico [contributes] to the ill-health of some when they finally are able to enter the United States,” McKenna said. “Of course, young children are among the most vulnerable to becoming dangerously sick.”

The proposal to hold kids indefinitely, McKenna added, only compounds those health risks, “placing children’s lives in danger.”

“It’s my hope that she is with her father and that she’s receiving adequate care,” Ojeda said, although she noted cases where the agency has released people from custody while they remained ill—in her mind, to avoid taking the blame when the person died. “They need to take a long hard look at their policies before they hit ‘send.’”

Merkley echoed McKenna and Ojeda’s concerns about metering and the “Remain In Mexico,” and told The Daily Beast that concerns about the safety of children in immigration enforcement custody are more than academic.

Six migrant children have died in government custody in the past year, the majority of them in CBP custody.

Darlyn Cristabel Cordova-Valle, 10 years old, died of a heart defect in September 2018. Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7 years old, died of a streptococcal sepsis infection in December 2018 after she was given a clean bill of health by CBP at the border. She spent 90 minutes vomiting on a bus ride before she was attended to by a physician. Felipe Gómez Alonzo, 8, died on Christmas morning of the flu complicated by a staph bacteria infection that led to sepsis after he was diagnosed with a common cold and not tested for influenza. Juan DeLeon Gutierrez, 16, fell ill at an Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter in May. No autopsy was performed. Wilmer Ramírez Vásquez, 2, had multiple intestinal and respiratory infectious diseases, including influenza, intestinal parasites, and E. coli when he died in May. Six days later, Carlos Hernández Vásquez, 16, also died of the flu, complicated by pneumonia and sepsis, after he was left alone for four hours in a Border Patrol detention cell with a 103-degree fever.

“The news that another child has been hospitalized should give everyone great concern,” Merkley said. “Until the Trump administration stops using migrant children as pawns in their deterrence strategy, I fear we will continue to see tragedy unfold at our borders.”