U.S. Customs and Border Protection will conduct secondary medical checks on all children in its custody after an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy died shortly before midnight on Christmas Eve after being apprehended at the Alamogordo Border Patrol Station in New Mexico on Dec. 18.
The death of Felipe Alonzo-Gomez is the second death of a child in CBP detention since 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin died on Dec. 8.
“This tragedy, the death of a child in government custody is deeply concerning and heartbreaking,” DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement. “To put this in perspective, there were six migrant deaths while in CBP custody during FY 2018 – none whom were children. In fact, it has been more than a decade since CBP has had a child pass away in their custody. It is now clear that migrants, particularly children, are increasingly facing medical challenges and harboring illness caused by their long and dangerous journey.”
Nielsen said that the secondary medical checks and other measures in response to the boy’s death are “extraordinary,” and that she will be traveling to the border next week to witness the enhanced medical screenings at Border Patrol stations.
In order to conduct the health checks, CBP may need help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense and the Coast Guard, according to Politico. CBP will focus on children ages 10 and under.
“This is a tragic loss,” CBP Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan said in a statement. “On behalf of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, our deepest sympathies go out to the family.”
Important to note the child was in CBP custody more than 130 hours, almost twice as long as allowed under court orders. 7/
— Bob Moore (@BobMooreNews) December 26, 2018
Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), the incoming chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, identified Alonzo-Gomez on Twitter and said that “Congress should investigate this tragedy upon its return to session.”
.@HispanicCaucus Chair Elect @JoaquinCastrotx: "I’m deeply saddened by the death of 8-year-old Felipe Alonzo-Gomez last night in @CBP custody and offer my condolences to his family." Full statement here: https://t.co/e0GWKQgPTJ pic.twitter.com/uRUFl9AuWa
— Hispanic Caucus (@HispanicCaucus) December 25, 2018
The boy and his father were arrested three miles west of the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry in El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 18, and were given food, juice and water, according to the Department of Homeland Security. CBP agents reportedly conducted six welfare checks on the pair between Dec. 18 and Dec. 20, when they were transferred to the El Paso Border Patrol Station, where they were given 17 welfare checks. They were later transferred to the Alamogordo Border Patrol Station in New Mexico. At around 9 a.m. on Dec. 24, a CBP agent reported that the 8-year-old Alonzo-Gomez had glossy eyes, and both he and his father were then taken to the Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
Alonzo-Gomez had a 103-degree temperature and was diagnosed with a cold. After an hour-and-a-half of hospital supervision, the boy and his father were given ibuprofen and antibiotics and released back into CBP custody. He left the medical center with his father, but was later readmitted and passed away. The father, who was detained at the Alamogordo Station pending his transfer to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, spoke to his wife in Guatemala and the Guatemalan Consulate on Christmas Day.
Nielsen said that the death is a result of a broken immigration system, and chastised congressional lawmakers for their inaction toward greater immigration reform. She also noted that the Border Patrol apprehensions for the last two months increased by 86 percent over last year, with 139,817 migrants arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border, versus 74,946 apprehended during the same period last year. She also said that the Border Patrol has taken in 68,510 family units and 13,981 unaccompanied children in the last two months.
“To be clear, Border Patrol stations were never intended to be longer-term holding facilities for any individuals,” she said. “As a result of bad judicial rulings from activist judges and inaction by Congress, we are seeing a flood of family units and unaccompanied alien children. The unprecedented number of families and unaccompanied children at the border must not be ignored. I once again ask – beg – parents to not place their children at risk by taking a dangerous journey north. Vulnerable populations – including family units and unaccompanied alien children should seek asylum at the first possible opportunity, including Mexico.”
The boy’s death occurred amid a partial U.S. government shutdown over border wall funding, leading to widespread criticism of the Trump administration by Democratic lawmakers.
Another child, 8-year-old Felix Alonzo-Gomez, has died in the custody of border patrol agents. Mr. President, how many lives must be lost before we acknowledge the magnitude of this humanitarian crisis? A wall won't fix this human tragedy. #JusticeForJakelin #JusticeForFelix
— Congressman Al Green (@RepAlGreen) December 26, 2018
In February, Human Rights Watch released a report titled “In The Freezer” alleging cold and abusive conditions at CBP detention facilities. According to the report, men, women, and children, including infants, are held in “frigid holding cells, sometimes for days.”
The cells are commonly referred to as “hieleras,” or freezers.
“Women and children detained along the border usually spend one to three nights, and sometimes longer, in CBP holding cells, where they sleep on the floor, often with only a Mylar blanket, similar to the foil wrappers used by marathon runners, to protect them from the cold,” the report states. “Border agents sometimes require them to remove and discard sweaters or other layers of clothing, purportedly for security reasons, before they enter the holding cells.”
Nielsen said that the border system is at its breaking point.
“We at DHS are committed to continuing to assist those in need – in the past year alone the Border Patrol assisted more than 4,300 people in distress along the border – that’s a 20 percent increase in rescues from the year before,” she said. “To put this in perspective, there were six migrant deaths while in CBP custody during FY 2018 – none whom were children. In fact, it has been more than a decade since CBP has had a child pass away in their custody. It is now clear that migrants, particularly children, are increasingly facing medical challenges and harboring illness caused by their long and dangerous journey.”
The total number of migrant children in CBP custody is unclear, although the New York Times estimates that there are 15,000 migrant children at detention facilities.
Under Nielsen’s direction, McAleenan directed CBP to do the following:
- U.S. Border Patrol is conducting secondary medical checks upon all children in CBP care and custody, including children arriving as part of Family Units (FMUA) and Unaccompanied Children (UACs), with a focus on children under 10 years old.
- U.S. Border Patrol is engaging U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement regarding available surge options for transportation to Family Residential Centers and/or supervised release. CBP is also reviewing all available custody options to relieve capacity issues in Border Patrol stations and checkpoints in El Paso Sector, including any options identified by NGOs and/or local partners for temporary housing that can safely accommodate those in custody.
- CBP is considering options for surge medical assistance from interagency partners, including receiving support from the U.S. Coast Guard, and potentially requesting further aid from the Department of Defense, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Health and Human Services to assist the U.S. Border Patrol with supplemental medical capabilities. CBP is coordinating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the numbers of children in custody as well.
- CBP will review policies with particular focus on care and custody of children under 10, both at intake and beyond 24 hours in custody