Last week, a group of 163 migrants who crossed the border near Lordsburg, New Mexico, turned themselves in to Border Patrol. Among the migrants was a Guatemalan man and his seven-year-old daughter, Jackeline Caal. Eight hours after they were taken into custody, Caal began having seizures. She was flown to the Providence Children’s Hospital in El Paso, Texas, where she went into cardiac arrest. Less than a day later, she was dead. “Our sincerest condolences go out to the family of the child,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Andrew Meehan said in a statement to the Washington Post, which reported the news Thursday night. “Border Patrol agents took every possible step to save the child’s life under the most trying of circumstances. As fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, we empathize with the loss of any child.”
According to CBP, Caal “reportedly had not eaten or consumed water for several days” before being taken into custody. Prior to being flown to El Paso, she was recorded as having a temperature of 105.7 degrees. Enduring prolonged periods without proper nourishment is not uncommon for migrants making their way to the border, and Border Patrol typically provides food and water to those they apprehend. It’s unclear whether this was the case with the seven-year-old from Guatemala, and CBP has said it is investigating what happened. The father, whose name has not been released as of this writing, is still El Paso, waiting to meet with officials from the Guatemalan consulate, according to the Post.
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP, released a statement early Friday morning after the death was announced. The department that oversees the CBP claimed they “were unable to stop this tragedy from occurring” while essentially blaming the father for the death of his daughter.
DHS statement tonight on the death of a 7-year-old girl in Border Patrol custody: pic.twitter.com/FzC6VftKVe
— Hamed Aleaziz (@Haleaziz) December 14, 2018
The White House was also quick to absolve itself of any potential wrongdoing. “Does the administration take responsibility for a parent taking a child on a trek through Mexico to get to this country? No,” Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley said Friday morning on Fox News.
Though the DHS says Caal died despite their “best efforts” to save her life, there’s plenty of reason to suspect the death could have been prevented. The department’s treatment of migrants has been under heavy scrutiny for months. After the Trump administration instituted its family separation policy in April, DHS housed many migrant children in cages, and reports of improper care of children with medical conditions have persisted. The Border Patrol’s inhumane treatment of migrants predates the family separation policy, as well. In January, it was reported that Border Patrol agents routinely destroy food and water that humanitarian groups leave for migrants. “The practice of destruction of and interference with aid is not the deviant behavior of a few rogue border patrol agents,” the report read, “it is a systemic feature of enforcement practices in the borderlands.”
Caal isn’t the first child to die after being held in DHS custody. In May, the infant daughter of Yazmin Juarez, a Guatemalan woman who was detained after crossing the border two months earlier, died after the family was released to stay with Juarez’s mother in New Jersey. Through her lawyers, Juarez accused ICE of holding her and her daughter in a facility “with unsafe conditions, neglectful medical care, and inadequate supervision,” claiming the child contracted a respiratory infection that “went woefully under-treated for nearly a month.”
On Tuesday, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that the agency’s holding cells are not able to adequately accommodate the influx of families crossing the border. As the Post pointed out on Thursday, 58 percent of the migrants taken into custody by CBP traveled across the border as part of a family. The DHS is set to appear before the House Judiciary Committee next week, and incoming chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) wrote that he plans to press Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen about last week’s incident. “A 7-year-old child dies while in the custody of the U.S. government,” Nadler tweeted. “@DHSGov Secretary is coming before @HouseJudiciary next week, and we will be demanding immediate answers to this tragedy.”
Nadler wasn’t the only lawmaker to demand answers. “I am deeply saddened by this girl’s death,” tweeted 2018 Senate candidate and potential 2020 presidential hopeful Beto O’Rouke. “There must be a complete investigation and the results shared with Congress and the public.” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), another potential 2020 hopeful, felt similarly. “This is tragic. We need a full and thorough account of what happened before this 7-year-old girl died of dehydration and exhaustion in CBP custody,” she tweeted.
The ACLU weighed in, as well, calling for a “rigorous” investigation. “This is a horrific, indefensible tragedy,” the organization tweeted on Thursday. “What’s worse is that it is far from the first death at the hands of DHS. If this isn’t the America we want to be, now is the time to be loud about it.”