Hours after President Trump declared in the White House Rose Garden that he doesn’t “do coverups,” his administration revealed that it had been hiding the death of a migrant girl at the border for the past eight months. On Thursday evening, CBS News reported that a 10-year-old girl from El Salvador died last September while under the care of the government. The Department of Health and Human Services confirmed the death, which had not been previously disclosed.
HHS spokesman Mark Weber explained that the girl had a history of heart problems and was in a “medically fragile” state when she arrived at an Office of Refugee Resettlement facility last March. The girl’s name was not released, and it’s unclear why the death was not previously reported. “I have not seen any indication that the Trump administration disclosed the death of this young girl to the public or even to Congress,” Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-TX) told CBS. “And if that’s the case, they covered up her death for eight months, even though we were actively asking the question about whether any child had died or been seriously injured. We began asking that question last fall.”
The total number of migrant children who have died in government custody or just after being released from government custody since last fall now stands at six. The fifth came earlier this week when Carlos Hernandez Vásquez, a 16-year-old from Guatemala, died the day after he arrived at a Border Patrol station in Weslaco, Texas. Vásquez reportedly told staff at an immigrant processing center in McAllen that he felt sick. As PBS points out, at the time of his death Vásquez had been held by the immigration authorities for a total of six days, twice as long as is generally permitted by federal law.
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On Wednesday, before the death of the 10-year-old girl from El Salvador was reported, Congress grilled Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan about the department’s treatment of children in detention. It didn’t get off to a great start.
First question from Sen. Peters for Acting DHS Sec. McAleenan:
Does every child in CBP custody have access to pediatrician?
— Dianne Gallagher (@DianneG) May 23, 2019
Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-IL) went on to blame the administration for the deaths, calling them a result of “a policy choice being made on purpose by this administration and it’s cruel and inhumane.”
“Congress has been more than willing to provide the resources and work with you to address the security and humanitarian concerns,” she said. “But at this point, with five kids that have died, 5,000 separated from their families, I feel like — and the evidence is really clear — that this is intentional. It’s intentional.”
McAleenan called Underwood’s claim an “an appalling accusation.”
.@HomelandGOP insisted on striking Rep. Underwood’s words from the record—so here they are. Thank you @RepUnderwood for speaking truth to power and defending migrant families. pic.twitter.com/KMuu67r8da
— Families Belong Together (@fams2gether) May 22, 2019
McAleenan’s shocked disavowal recalled earlier testimony from Trump administration officials about cruelty at the border. Last June, then-secretary Kirsten Nielsen insisted that the administration would never do something so callous as institute a family separation policy. “I find that offensive,” Nielsen told reporters. “No, because why would I ever create a policy that ever does that.” It was one of many instances in which she claimed no such policy existed. She also insisted to Congress that families were not being separated at the border “for purposes of deterrence.”
None of this was true. In September, it was revealed that Nielsen had indeed authorized what was explicitly outlined as a family separation policy. The plan she signed off on made clear that prosecuting every adult who crossed the border illegally, even those with children, would “have the greatest impact on current flows.” This is another way of saying it was meant to deter migrants from seeking asylum in the United States.
During the hearing Wednesday, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) made the same point about children dying at the border. If only migrant families didn’t come to the United States seeking asylum, he suggested during an exchange with McAleenan, their children would still be alive. In other words, it’s their fault.
Kevin McAleenan: "I believe our agents did everything they could to help these children."
Sen. John Cornyn: "Wouldn't they more likely be alive today if they had not made that trip in the 1st place?"
CBP Commissioner McAleenan: "It's speculative, senator, but yes, more likely." pic.twitter.com/sfLNPvQag3
— The Hill (@thehill) March 6, 2019
As Underwood noted, the DHS seems indifferent, if not intentionally resistant, to the idea of providing care for migrant children at the border. In March, when Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) asked McAleenan if Customs and Border Patrol, which he led at the time, is duty-bound to ensure the safety of children as they are transferred between agencies, he essentially shrugged his shoulders.
I asked CBP Commissioner McAleenan whether it's his duty to ensure immigrant children aren't sexually abused after they're transferred out of his agency.
His response: I'm mandated by law to transfer these children, I don't have an ability to question that.
This is outrageous. pic.twitter.com/SA2ugkEwyj
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) March 6, 2019
Nielsen was similarly evasive when she was running the DHS. In December, a few weeks after the first migrant child was reported to have died after being apprehended at the border, Nielsen told Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) that she didn’t know how many people had died while in her department’s custody. “I will get back to you with the number,” she said. A few days later, Trump blamed Democrats for the death, just as he did for his own administration’s family separation policy. “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,” he tweeted.
A few days after that, on Christmas Eve, another child, eight-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo, died from the flu while in government custody.
Nielsen was forced out of her position at the top of the DHS last month after expressing reluctance to enact multiple policy positions floated by the administration, such as transporting migrants to left-leaning “sanctuary cities” — in what Trump imagined as a way to punish Democrats for failing to get in line with his immigration demands. Trump named McAleenan as her acting replacement. “I have confidence that Kevin will do a great job!” Trump wrote.
On Thursday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) responded to the previous night’s report that another migrant child had died while in government custody or shortly after being released. “It’s important to note that in the 10 years before this, not a single child died in custody at the border,” she said. “Now, six children have died in the last several months. Six children have died in the last several months.”
Talk about appalling.