By Elizabeth Murphy
Since September 29, 2018, six children have died in United States custody on the US-Mexico Border, ranging in age from 2 to 16 years old. The first girl was from El Salvador, while the other five children were from Guatemala. The most recent death was of Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, a 16-year-old boy who died on May 20th while in detention at the Weslaco Station facility in Texas.
Each month, approximately 100,000 migrants seeking asylum in the United States attempt to cross the Mexico-US border. According to the International Rescue Committee, the majority come from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, braving the crossing for reasons including “escaping gang violence, persecution, and domestic violence.” Guatemala, in particular, has faced intense poverty, drought, and gang violence.
These deaths are a direct result of inhumane and draconian US immigration policy. Following the most recent death, Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas stated, "Make no mistake. This is a pattern of death. This is an epidemic of death by the Trump administration. As I mentioned, nobody had died for 10 years. And in the last six months, you've had five deaths.”
Modern, restrictive, US immigration policies can be traced to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as policies were crafted to reflect the War on Terror. Such policies placed greater emphasis on national security and the prevention of future terrorist attacks than they did on providing asylum, and borders were increasingly seen as areas of risk.
According to the Geneva Refugee Convention, migrants may petition asylum while crossing the border or at a port of entry, meaning they must prove previous persecution or credible fear of persecution due to their “race, religion, nationality, membership to a particular social group, or political opinion.” This law was implemented in response to World War II human rights violations and incorporated into the US Refugee Act of 1980. Furthermore, according to other international human rights agreements, no one may be turned away at the border. However, according to a CNN report, US President Donald Trump “told border patrol agents at the southern border to break the law and not let migrants into the country.” Furthermore, Trump frequently uses dehumanizing rhetoric when discussing migrants, just as he attempts to leverage xenophobia for political gain. Such actions have myriad consequences. Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the Mexico-US border, for instance, caused a 35-day government shut down that impeded asylum cases of those already in the United States.
After 75% of migrants in asylum cases were granted asylum status in 2018, Trump announced that he would make the asylum process stricter, thus reducing the approval rate. The International Rescue Committee projects that these new laws will disproportionately affect survivors of domestic violence, LGBTQ people, and victims of gang violence. Additionally, Trump announced in April that asylum seekers will have to pay application fees and that his administration will further restrict work permits. This will make it more difficult for migrants and asylum seekers to obtain legal documentation. The president also announced that officials will have three months to find a solution to settling delayed court cases within a 180 day period.
The nuances of the situation at the border have made migration an easy topic to misrepresent. The New York Times reports that problems with migrant safety and security have become more prevalent since 2014, as rising numbers of family border crossing stressed the United States detention facilities and legal systems. It is important to note, however, that as the International Rescue Committee stated, “the number of irregular border crossings is at historic lows, according to the administration’s own Customs and Border Patrol figures… what has changed is that the number of people seeking protection has risen.” This differentiation between asylum seeking and irregular border crossings is not one that is often noted by the US government.
As of April 10, 2019 the “immigration courts now have more than 800,000 pending cases; each one takes an average of 700 days to process.” According to the New York Times, officials have described the current immigration system as an “operational emergency” and “system-wide meltdown” due to the overcapacity of centers and large delays in legal aid. With detention centers above capacity, the Department of Homeland Security has even sought new ways to detain incoming migrants. In March, migrants in El Paso, Texas were detained in a temporary center under the Paso Del Notre Bridge while the department sought more permanent centers.
Under President George W. Bush, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act was enacted in order to differentiate treatment of migrant children and adults, limiting the time that children and families can be detained to 20 days. Trump has used this act to legally persecute migrants by separating families. This systemic persecution has forced children into foster care or, in the case of thousands, into so-called shelters – where children are kept in conditions that include enforced silence, the inhabitation of cages, psychotropic drugging, and sexual assault. Their families, meanwhile, remain in detention centers. Trump’s goal was to use family separation to slow family migration from Central America, which has not previously been explicit US policy due to concerns regarding child welfare.
Because of the family separation practices enacted by Trump, there are nearly 3,000 children reported as separated from their families, though the number is certainly much higher as many cases go unreported. Most children are taken thousands of miles away from their parents or other family. Even after some federal government initiatives to end family separations in the face of global backlash, it is still ongoing.
Additionally, following President Trump’s family separation policy, Steven Wagner, the Health and Human Services Acting Assistant Secretary, announced that the government was, “unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475” migrant children who had been resettled with sponsors. These children may not be lost, but their sponsors did not respond to follow up calls, meaning that the children are not accounted for by the US government and thus their safety cannot be ensured. There are limited laws regarding the responsibility of the government once a child has left the care of Office of Refugee Resettlement, as sponsors are often distant relatives of the children, thus the government is not liable for locating the unaccounted-for children.
Each of the children who passed away in detention centers were diagnosed with infections and illnesses, though it is unclear in some cases whether these were contracted before or after entering the center. Either way, the care they were given, if any at all, was insufficient to prevent their deaths. Prior to detention, the Department of Homeland Security directs health screenings for all children, and it “has amplified its medical efforts in recent months to accommodate the influx of children and families.” However, Rep. Raul Ruiz of California, who visited migrant shelters in New Mexico after the first reported migrant child death in December, says that detention centers are "petri dishes for people to get sick.” Ruiz further explained that “the CBP (Customs and Border Protection) was not created to address the humanitarian needs of families who are legally seeking asylum in our country, and therefore the conditions that the women, infants, toddlers, elderly, find themselves are subhuman.”
The first reported death occurred on September 29, 2018, though it was not officially reported until May 22, 2019. Due to complications of congenital heart defects, a 10 year-old girl from El Salvador passed while in US custody. The Consulate General of El Salvador was not informed of the death, and it is unclear why the death had remained unreported for nearly eight months. This abdication of responsibility and extended delay raises the question of whether there are more unreported cases.
On December 8th, Jakelin Caal Maquin, a 7 year-old girl, died two days after her detention in New Mexico; succumbing to streptococcal sepsis, a bacterial infection that spread throughout her body, causing organ failure. When she arrived, there were reportedly no clear signs of illness, though physicians determined that the young girl “would have been visibly sick for many hours.”
Later, on December 24, Felipe Gómez Alonzo died, also in custody in New Mexico, due to influenza and infection. When he fell ill, he was taken to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with a common cold and fever and was then released, returning later that night with more severe symptoms before dying.
During April and May of 2019, three other children died. One was a 2 year-old boy who suffered from pneumonia, who died approximately month after crossing the border, and who, according to his mother, became ill following their detention. His mother alerted agents that the boy was ill on April 6 - just three days after they arrived in the detention center.
Another child died on April 30, a 16 year-old boy named Juan de León Gutiérrez. Gutiérrez died due to a brain infection, 11 days after being apprehended in El Paso, Texas. The Customs and Border Protection clinicians did not note any medical issues when examining him upon arrival at the shelter, though the very morning after he arrived he was taken to the emergency room after showing symptoms of illness. He received some treatment but was sent back into custody, later to return to the hospital to undergo emergency surgery prior to his death.
Most recently, Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, a 16 year-old boy, died on May 20th. He had been removed from general detention areas to a “short-term holding room” after being diagnosed with Influenza A and was pronounced dead the day after his diagnosis.
It is unclear whether these illnesses were contracted while under government care, but the inhumane conditions faced by migrant children while in US custody are undoubtedly a factor in the pattern of deaths. In an interview with NPR, Rep. Raul Ruiz of California described the conditions of the detention centers he visited in New Mexico following the death of Jakelin Caal Maquin. He noted that not only was there no appropriate food for the elderly and infants, but many of the detainees were not given adequate amounts of water daily. Additionally, he described "children laying on concrete floors, in very, very cold rooms, with the lights on all night, and being interrupted with loud noise, throughout the night.” These brutal conditions may not have caused illness in all cases, but they could easily foster the spread of illness and worsen pre-existing ailments. Without fundamental changes to US immigration policy, children will continue to die.
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