By COLLEEN LONG, ASTRID GALVAN and SONIA PEREZ D.
WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. immigration officials on Friday defended their actions in the detention of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died two days after she and her father were taken into custody along a remote stretch of the U.S. border.
The girl, identified by a Guatemalan official as Jackeline Caal, had gone days without food and water, a Department of Homeland Security statement said. Yet immigration officials said she did not appear to be ill when detained.
A Border Patrol form completed shortly after she was stopped said she was not sweating, had no tremors or visible trauma and was mentally alert. “Claims good health,” the form reads. Jackelines father appeared to have signed the form, which was obtained by The Associated Press.
But, hours later, after Jackeline was placed on a bus, she started vomiting. She was not breathing when she arrived at a Border Patrol station. Emergency medical technicians revived her and she was flown to a hospital in El Paso, Texas, where she was found to have swelling in her brain and liver failure, officials said. She later died.
The agents speak Spanish, but the father and daughter were from an area in northern Guatemala called Raxruha in Alta Verapaz and may have spoken a Mayan dialect, not Spanish.
An autopsy was scheduled to determine the girls death. The results could take weeks.
“The agents involved are deeply affected and empathize with the father over the loss of his daughter,” said U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan. “We cannot stress enough the dangers posed by traveling long distances, in crowded transportation, or in the natural elements through remote desert areas without food, water and other supplies.”
The girls identity was provided to AP by an official with Guatemalas foreign ministry, who identified the father as 29-year-old Nery Caal. The official requested anonymity because he was not authorized to share information. It was later confirmed by Customs and Border Protection officials.
Caal was driven to El Paso and was at the hospital when his daughter died, officials said. He is not detained.
Jackelines death comes as increasing numbers of children and families are making the dangerous trek north from Central America and as immigration officials are being increasingly criticized for their treatment of migrants who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border. Homeland Securitys watchdog will review what happened in the girls case, federal officials said.
The pair were taken into custody at about 9:15 p.m. Dec. 6 in a group of 163 people in remote New Mexico, about 90 miles from the nearest Border Patrol station in Lordsburg. The group was apprehended by four Border Patrol agents. The rugged, mountainous area is mostly deserted, home to ghost towns and abandoned buildings from Old West homesteader days. Its an unforgiving terrain where Geronimo made his last stand and it remains largely isolated with no cell service and few paved roads.
Theres a small Border Patrol operating base near where the group was found with food, water and bathrooms, but no medical help. They were found near the Antelope Wells port of entry, which was closed when they arrived. Its not clear if they had been trying to cross legally.
The migrants were bused from the area to Lordsburg in two groups, including about 50 minors without parents in the first group, officials said. The girl and her father didnt start the 90-mile journey until about 4:30 a.m., when the bus returned.
The father said the girl was vomiting on the bus. When they arrived at the Border Patrol station in Lordsburg at about 6:30 a.m. Dec. 7, she was not breathing, officials said. Emergency medical technicians discovered the girls fever was 105.7 degrees Fahrenheit (40.9 degrees Celsius), and she was airlifted to a hospital. She died shortly after midnight on Dec. 8.
Rep. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, called for a hearing on her death.
“I am devastated by this news, but I am hardly surprised. The Administration has repeatedly shown a disinterest in solving immigration issues—instead leveraging Central Americas refugee crisis for their own political gain,” Correa said in a statement Friday.
“This young girl was a casualty of the presidents obsession with building an unnecessary border wall, instead of investing in the resources and training our national security professionals need,” Correa said. As the incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Correa said he will “investigate this issue to the full extent of the law. This tragedy can and should have been avoided.”
Rep. Norma J. Torres, D-Pomona, also called for a hearing.
“Lets be clear: when a U.S. government agency has a 7-year-old girl in its custody, that girls health and safety is the responsibility of that agency. But DHS has issued an official statement that tries to wash its hands of all culpability. Thats unacceptable: they must come clean with the facts,” Torres said in a statement.
Torres said she is “disgusted” that Department of Homeland Secretary Kristjen Nielsen appeared to blame the family of the girl for bringing the child on a dangerous journey. “She should know better than to blame the victim. Making the decision to migrate is not easy, and migrants know that the journey is risky. They are coming here because they have no other choice,” said Torres, who was born in Guatemala.
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley called Jackelines death “a horrific, tragic situation” and called for “commonsense laws to disincentivize people from coming up from the border,” crossing illegally.
Guatemalan consular officials said they have spoken with the father who was deeply upset.
“It is important to show that, unfortunately, the places where migrants now enter are more dangerous and the distances they travel are greater,” consular officials said.
Immigration officials said hundreds of people who have been overcome by the harsh desert and sweltering conditions are saved by Border Patrol every year.
When a Border Patrol agent arrests someone, that person is processed at a facility but usually spends no more than 72 hours in custody before either being transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement or, if the person is Mexican, being deported home.
Immigrants, attorneys and activists have long raised issues with the conditions of Border Patrol holding cells. In Tucson, Arizona, an ongoing lawsuit claims holding cells are filthy, cold and lacking basic necessities such as blankets. A judge overseeing that lawsuit has ordered the agencys Tucson Sector, which patrols much of the Arizona-Mexico border, to provide blankets and mats to sleep on and to continually turn over surveillance footage from inside the cells.
Agents in Arizona see groups of more than 100 people, sometimes including infants and toddlers, on a regular basis.
Arresting such groups poses logistical problems for agents, who have to wait on transport vans that are equipped with baby seats to take the migrants to processing facilities, some which are at least a half-hour north of the border.
Jackelines death prompted calls for an investigation and rebukes of the administrations immigration policies from some local and national groups.
“We mourn the loss of a girl who had a history, family, dreams, and aspirations. CBP is ultimately responsible for this death and must explain itself thoroughly. We demand an investigation of this tragedy, the latest in a string of callous and inhumane acts led by the Trump Administration against immigrants,” said Angelica Salas, executive director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
The death of the 7-year-old comes after a toddler died in May just after being released from an family detention facility in Texas and as President Donald Trumps administration attempts to ban people from asking for asylum if they cross the border illegally. A federal appeals court has temporarily blocked that ban, but the administration asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate it Tuesday.
The Washington Post first reported the girls story late Thursday.
Galvan reported from Phoenix, and Perez D. from Guatemala City. Associated Press writers Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Russell Contreras in Albuquerque, New Mexico contributed to this report. Southern California News Group reporter Roxana Kopetman contributed to this report.
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