A 7-year-old Guatemalan girl attempting to secure entry into the United States died in Border Patrol custody last week, hours after crossing into New Mexico. The girl, whose name has not been released, traveled with her father as part of a group of 163 migrants. The cause of death was reportedly a combination of exhaustion, dehydration, fever, and septic shock, but in its official response, the Department of Homeland Security — an agency that has attracted criticism for the deplorable conditions in which Customs and Border Protection reportedly holds detainees — put the blame on her parents.
“Traveling north through Mexico illegally in an attempt to reach the United States, is extremely dangerous,” reads the full DHS statement. “Drug cartels, human smugglers and the elements pose deadly risks to anyone who seeks to cross our border illegally. Border Patrol always takes care of individuals in their custody and does everything in their power to keep people safe. Every year the Border Patrol saves hundreds of people who are overcome by the elements between our ports of entry. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts and the best efforts of the medical team treating the child, we were unable to stop this tragedy from occurring.
“Once again, we are begging parents to not put themselves or their children at risk attempting to enter illegally. Please present yourselves at a port of entry and seek to enter legally and safely.”
In an appearance on Fox and Friends, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen doubled down on that sentiment. “This is just a very sad example of the dangers of this journey,” she said. “This family chose to cross illegally.”
Promising the DHS would “continue to look into the situation,” Nielsen added: “Again, I cannot stress enough how dangerous this journey is when migrants choose to come here illegally.”
The Washington Post originally reported that CBP took the girl and her father into custody around 10 p.m. on December 6, and that around 6:25 a.m. the following day, she began having seizures. The child charted a 105.7 degree fever, and allegedly had not had anything to eat or drink for days. According to the DHS, she began to vomit on the way to the nearest Border Patrol station — 90 miles away from the stretch of desert where agents stopped the group. MSNBC reports that the girl did not receive medical attention for a full hour-and-a-half after she began throwing up.
EMS responded and air-lifted the child to the Providence Children’s Hospital in El Paso, according to the Post, where she died within 24 hours. Her father reportedly remains in El Paso, where he will meet with officials from the Guatemalan consulate.
The DHS maintains that both the girl and her father had access to water once taken into custody. Speaking to the Post, CBP spokesman Andrew Meehan insisted that “Border Patrol agents took every possible step to save the child’s life under the most trying of circumstances.” Yet the CBP has recently come under scrutiny for its seemingly negligent treatment of the people it detains: Indeed, the agency faces a lawsuit for the “freezing, overcrowded, and filthy cells” in which it allegedly holds migrants in Tucson, Arizona, where “individuals are stripped of outer layers of clothing and forced to suffer in brutally cold temperatures; deprived of beds, bedding, and sleep; denied adequate food, water, medicine and medical care, and basic sanitation and hygiene items.” And in May, a toddler reportedly died shortly after being released from an ICE detention center.
The DHS has heaped responsibility on parents, many of whom are trying to remove themselves and their children from perilously violent situations at home — especially those coming from the Northern Triangle of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. But at the same time, the U.S. has (allegedly) been deliberately delaying those who do show up at its legal ports of entry, subjecting many to untenably long waits in Mexico, and has also eliminated asylum protections for victims of domestic and gang violence. The administration castigates families for failing to use the proper channels, but it’s also made sure that no proper channels exist.
Update: This post has been updated with Kirstjen Nielsen’s comments on Fox and Friends.