Death in detention: Another migrant child dies in U.S. custody

A 16-year-old Guatemalan migrant died in Texas on Tuesday, continuing a controversial pattern in detentions

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 2, 2019 12:38PM (EDT)

Central American migrants surrender to United States Border Patrol officers after crossing to El Paso, Texas from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico on April 21, 2019. (Getty/Herika Martinez)
Central American migrants surrender to United States Border Patrol officers after crossing to El Paso, Texas from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico on April 21, 2019. (Getty/Herika Martinez)

A new report reveals that a 16-year-old Guatemalan child died in the custody of federal agents in Texas, continuing a disturbing trend in American immigration.

The male teenager was brought to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) center run out of a former Walmart in Brownsville, Texas, Southwest Key Casa Padre on April 20, according to BuzzFeed News. The facility houses nearly 1,200 migrant youths, both boys and girls.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, Evelyn Stauffer, claims that physicians from US Customs and Border Protection did not notice any health problems with the boy but that he had become "noticeably ill" by the following morning. His symptoms included chills, feverishness and a headache. Workers at the facility responded to the situation by bringing the teenager to a local hospital before returning him to the shelter on that same day.

"The minor’s health did not improve after being transferred back to the shelter so on the morning of April 22, 2019, the minor was taken to another hospital emergency department via ambulance. Later that day, the minor was transferred to a children’s hospital in Texas and was treated for several days in the hospital’s intensive care unit. Following several days of intensive care, the minor passed away at the hospital on April 30, 2019," Stauffer said.

Prior to passing away, the teenager was visited by his brother and Guatemalan consulate officials in the hospital. The consulate claims that they also tried to obtain humanitarian visas for the child's parents, but they were unable to make the trip due to their advanced age.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told BuzzFeed News that "this boy deserved better. This should never have happened and there must be a full investigation into the circumstances of this young man’s death, followed by immediate action to ensure other children do not suffer the same fate."

He added that he was "not at all satisfied that rigorous protocols are in place. We must do much better."

In December Sen. Merkley spoke with Salon about his experiences trying to learn more about the centers where migrant children are being held.

"We were not allowed to speak to children. So you had these rules that had been in the facility — it's either Department of Homeland Security or Health and Human Services — they are imposing two-week requirements, you have to seek a waiver, they don't want to do it except when they can fly in special minders to control everything you do while you're there. We are not able to exercise oversight if we can not get into a facility on brief notice and actually talk to the relevant people, be they staff or be they actual for example the children or adult prisoners," Merkley told Salon.

He added, "They don't want people to know that they have this system of child prisons, that they're locking up children for far more than 20 days, that they're slow-walking their release even when they have sponsors who have gone through the full background check system because they want to keep them in prison rather than releasing them to homes and schools and parks, where they should be. This is all part of an effort by the administration on their policy from May to say to the world, 'Do not come to our borders if you're fleeing oppression because we will inflict trauma on you and your children.'"

As of January, 22 immigrants had died over a period of two years while being detained in America's detention centers for immigrants, including a 7-year-old girl from Guatemala named Jakelin Caal Maquin. An 8-year-old boy from Guatemala, Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, also recently died while in border patrol custody.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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