WASHINGTON — After touring several border facilities, a number of members of Congress called for an independent investigation into the death of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl in US custody last week.
“We learned today there were some very disturbing systematic failures in how the young girl’s condition was handled,” said US Rep. Joaquin Castro, the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Castro was one of about 13 members of Congress who visited a facility at Antelope Wells and a facility in Lordsburg, New Mexico, where Jakelin Caal Maquin was taken before her death.
The young girl had traveled with her father Nery Gilberto Caal, 29, more than 2,000 miles from her indigenous community in northern Guatemala and celebrated her birthday on the road, hoping to make it to the United States safely.
The father and daughter were detained along with 161 other migrants west of the Antelope Wells port of entry in New Mexico on December 6.
But when a bus arrived to take them to the Lordsburg Border Patrol station in New Mexico December 6, Caal told border patrol agents his daughter was sick and vomiting. After her condition worsened, Jakelin was helicoptered from the station to a children’s hospital in El Paso, Texas, where she died early December 8.
Calls for more medical resources at the border
Her father is now demanding answers about how her death, and Castro said an independent investigation should begin.
In particular, Castro said that Customs and Border Protection did not notify Congress of the death within 24 hours, as required by law. He also said that, as Jakelin showed symptoms of bodily failure during a 94-mile bus ride, there was nobody on board who could offer medical help.
US Rep. Ben Ray Lujan from New Mexico said the visit had proven to him the need for an independent investigation.
“It’s abundantly clear after today that it’s absolutely necessary,” he said.
Rep. Al Green of Texas said what he saw on the tour was unbelievable and unconscionable.
“The SPCA would not allow animals to be treated the way human beings are being treated at this facility,” he said.
CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told reporters on a conference call Tuesday afternoon that “we have surged additional medical support,” including search-and-rescue agents to work out of the Lordsburg, New Mexico sector.
McAleenan said “transport resources are somewhat limited and in high demand here … but we are going to be providing additional resources to this area of the border given this current phenomenon.”
Call for independent review
The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General’s office is investigating the death and says its findings will be released publicly.
On Saturday, lawyers representing Caal issued a statement saying he was “grateful for the many first responders that tried to save young Jakelin’s life in New Mexico and Texas.”
But they called for an investigation that “will assess this incident within nationally recognized standards for the arrest and custody of children. The family intends to assist in such an investigation into the cause and circumstances of Jakelin’s death.”
Monday they followed that up with the announcement that Jakelin’s family hoped for an objective investigation of her death and that they planned to seek an independent review.
Jakelin’s death, which was only made public Thursday, also has raised questions from members of Congress and advocates about how migrants are treated at the border.
What happened when Jakelin crossed the border
Jakelin and her father were among a group of 163 migrants detained by Border Patrol agents about a half-mile west of the Antelope Wells port of entry in New Mexico on December 6, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) says.
They were interviewed by agents to determine if they needed medical care and her father signed a form saying he and Jakelin were healthy.
On Saturday, Caal’s lawyers criticized border authorities for asking Caal to sign the form when it was written in English.
Caal speaks no English, they said. His first language is Q’eqchi — a Mayan language used in Guatemala — and Spanish is his second language.
“It is unacceptable for any government agency to have persons in custody sign documents in a language that they clearly do not understand,” the statement said.
CBP says Jakelin and her father were loaded onto a bus early the next morning — alongside some 50 migrants — to go to the Lordsburg Border Patrol station. With the bus preparing to leave, Jakelin’s father told agents his daughter was sick and vomiting.
Border agents called the station and requested that an emergency medical technician be ready when the bus arrived.
When the bus arrived at the Border Patrol station, Jakelin’s father said his daughter was not breathing.
Emergency medical technicians treated her and requested an ambulance. Her temperature was more than 105 degrees, and medics had to revive her twice.
An ambulance arrived but a helicopter was called to take Jakelin to Providence Children’s Hospital in El Paso, Texas, more than four hours away by vehicle. Jakelin was treated in the emergency room at the hospital and later transferred to the pediatric intensive care unit.
Border Patrol officials in Lordsburg were notified that Jakelin was revived again after going into cardiac arrest, CBP says.
A CT scan revealed she was suffering brain swelling. She was breathing by machine and was diagnosed with liver failure.
Early December 8, Jakelin died with her father by her side. An initial report by the hospital said she passed away due to sepsis shock.
In Guatemala, family members mourn
On Saturday, Caal’s lawyers said he had looked after his daughter on their journey north.
“Jakelin’s father took care of Jakelin — made sure she was fed and had sufficient water,” the statement said. “She had not suffered from a lack of water or food prior to approaching the border.”
In the remote Mayan Q’eqchi’ community of Raxruhá, Jakelin’s grandfather, told CNN en Español that her death really hurt. “Honestly, it’s hard to take in,” he said.
Jakelin was the second-born child of four children, ranging from 8 years old to 6 months. She was happy and healthy despite the family’s financial struggles. Caal said Jakelin’s father decided to leave because he was frustrated living in extreme poverty.
“He wanted to work, because he said he could make a better living there,” Caal said.