By Maddie Aitken ’19
Two Guatemalan migrant children, ages 7 and 8, died within three weeks of each other, both having been in U.S. custody in New Mexico. The 8-year-old boy, Felipe Gomez Alonzo, died on Christmas Day in a hospital from unknown causes after showing “signs of sickness,” although this is disputed by his father, who says he showed no signs of sickness when they arrived at the detention facility. The 7-year-old girl, Jakelin Caal Maquin, died a few weeks before of dehydration, a cause that is also disputed by her father.
The number of migrant families has increased significantly over the last year. In November 2018, the Border Patrol apprehended 25172 people in family units, compared with 7016 in November 2017. The problem with this increase, especially with President Trump’s hardcore immigration policies, is that the number or size of border facilities hasn’t increased. As such, border facilities have had to take in more people than they are designed for, and this has led to issues as extreme as death for already-vulnerable migrants and their children.
Kevin K. McAleenan, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, which oversees Border Patrol as well as ports of entry, said in July, “They [the detention facilities] were built for single adults…Think of it like a police station, like short-term detention before they’re turned over to a jail or a longer-term facility…They were not built to handle families and children.” The facilities were not built with the intention that they would house families, and so children that are detained there, especially for long periods of time, are at risk.
These recent deaths are a startling sign that our current immigration system is not equipped to deal with families and children. There is not ample space for everyone, and the conditions in detention facilities cause infection and disease to spread quickly. Medical professionals have spoken up about the trouble with keeping children in overcrowded, often cold facilities.
“These facilities are no place for a child, even a well child…The conditions in which these children are being held are truly shocking,” said Dr. Marsha Griffin, a pediatrician on the Texas-Mexico border as well as the co-chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ special interest group on immigrant health.
When migrants pass through processing facilities, complete medical histories and physical examinations are not conducted, meaning the authorities often don’t know if people are sick. This lack of information, compounded with the conditions of detention facilities – migrants sleep side-by-side on mats on the ground, and most everything is shared – does not bode well for migrant health. Often, healthy children get sick and sick children get sicker. In extreme cases, this can lead to death, as seen with Maquin and Alonzo over the past month.
The lack of medical screening was revealed in May 2017, when the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report on it. The report recommended children “not be subjected to these facilities,” but over a year later, they are still being kept in these same detention centers, and in high numbers.
The Department of Homeland Security is now using internal investigators to look into whether Border Patrol agents are following proper procedures, but results may take several weeks. The medical screening requirements are already so low that if the Border Patrol was not completing even those requirements sufficiently, there could be a significant breach in the health of migrants.
With an issue like this, the question of who is at fault always arises. It’s usually not a single person, administration or organization, but despite this, there has been both accountability and blame going around in the media since these horrific events.
Kirstjen M. Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, has acknowledged her faults over the last weeks. She recognizes that the increase in migrants over the last year has pushed our immigration system to “a breaking point.” She argued for more advanced medical screenings for migrants, especially children, since the two deaths, and personally traveled to the border to make sure they were implemented.
McAleenan of Customs and Border Protection said, “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…No one should risk injury, or even death, by crossing our border unlawfully.”
High profile Democrats including Hillary Clinton took to social media to share their feelings and concerns. Clinton tweeted, “There are no words to capture the horror of a seven-year-old girl dying of dehydration in U.S. custody. What’s happening at our borders is a humanitarian crisis.”
Many Americans are blaming President Trump, since he established a zero-tolerance policy earlier in 2018. He received much pushback for the policy, and his administration was under fire for the family separation debacle it spurred. However, White House officials deny the President Trump administration’s responsibility in the deaths of Maquin and Alonzo.
When Hogan Gidley, the White House deputy press secretary, was asked if the administration would take any responsibility for Maquin’s death, he said, “Does the administration take responsibility for a parent taking a child on a trek through Mexico to get to this country? No.”
President Trump, on the other hand, blames Democrats, and is using these deaths as leverage for his border wall. In his first public comment, he tied the deaths to the political deadlock over federal government funding, and in a series of tweets, said Democrats are to blame because they refused his project to build walls along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In a December 29 tweet, President Trump said, “Any deaths of children or others at the Border are strictly the fault of the Democrats and their pathetic immigration policies that allow people to make the long trek thinking they can enter our country illegally. They can’t. If we had a Wall, they wouldn’t even try!”