DHS offers tone-deaf response to 7-year-old migrant girl’s death

The child, who was detained near a legal port of entry, was initially denied care for dehydration and exhaustion, according to CBP records.

DHS officials this week offered a particularly tone-deaf response following the death of a 7-year-old migrant girl who was apparently denied medical care for hours before she passed. Pictured: Border Patrol agents near the U.S./Mexico border fence a few miles west of the Antelope Wells, New Mexico port of entry.(Photo credit: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
DHS officials this week offered a particularly tone-deaf response following the death of a 7-year-old migrant girl who was apparently denied medical care for hours before she passed. Pictured: Border Patrol agents near the U.S./Mexico border fence a few miles west of the Antelope Wells, New Mexico port of entry.(Photo credit: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) responded Thursday night to a Washington Post story about a 7-year-old immigrant child who had died of severe dehydration while in the custody of U.S. Border Patrol.

The statement, which invokes “drug cartels” and “human smugglers,” effectively blamed the child and her father for making the dangerous journey to the United States in the first place. It did not address the fact that the pair may have been trying to enter the country legally through a border port of entry and that the girl was apparently denied care for hours before her death.

“Border Patrol always takes care of individuals in their custody and does everything in their power to keep them safe. Every year the Border Patrol saves hundreds of people who are overcome by the elements between our ports of entry,” it read. “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.”

DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen reiterated this talking point during a Friday morning Fox News appearance saying she “cannot stress enough how dangerous this journey is when migrants choose to come here illegally.” She did not acknowledge that the family had been detained near a legal port of entry.


Nielsen also expressed sympathy for DHS itself — and not the girl’s family — saying that her “heart goes out to [the agency].”

The 7-year-old was originally taken into custody at around 9:15 p.m. on December 6, near the Antelope Wells port of entry in New Mexico. She and her father, along with a group of about 163 others, turned themselves into U.S. Border Patrol agents and were subsequently bused to a Border Patrol station in Lordsburg, reaching the facility by around 6:30 a.m. on December 7.

The girl’s father said his daughter began vomiting on the bus. According to NBC News, CBP agents were notified at 5 a.m. local time that the child had become sick, but she was not treated until the pair arrived at the border station — a full hour and a half later. By that time, officials said, she had stopped breathing.


Around the same time, the girl began having seizures, according Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) records obtained by The Washington Post, and her body temperature had reached 105 degrees.

After being transported to Providence Children’s Hospital in El Paso, the girl was “revived” but did not recover. She died less than 24 hours later.

DHS has so far pinned the blame on the girl’s father, who they claim said the girl was in good health when the two were detained. The DHS Inspector General’s office said Friday it would launch an investigation into the 7-year-old’s death.

ThinkProgress has reached out to DHS spokespersons for additional comment on the matter.

The journey from Central America to the U.S. southern border is no doubt treacherous. There are violent gangs and human traffickers posted along popular trails and the weather conditions are frequently intolerable. But the road is dangerous in part because DHS has made it dangerous.

While the Trump administration has urged immigrants to enter the country legally by presenting themselves at ports of entry — as the girl and her family did — border officials have instituted a policy of “metering,” allowing only a few people through every day, resulting in overcrowded ports and long wait times. Immigration law enforcement officials have even turned away families and individuals planning to apply for asylum, which is a clear violation of international human rights law.

As a result, some have become desperate, crossing between ports of entry, not because they want to, but out of necessity.


“There is a respect at the border that I don’t think people know about. They want to follow the process, they want to follow the procedures,” Angelo Guisado, civil rights lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights, told ThinkProgress. “But there has to be a breaking point and this is it.”

“The administration knows what they are doing and I fear that this is part of a larger plan. They force people to cross between points of entry and use that to feed their campaign talking point that these immigrants are criminals,” Guisado said.

There are other ways in which the administration has ensured a treacherous journey to the United States for Central American immigrants.

While CBP claims that the 7-year-old girl had not drunk water or eaten for days when they arrived at the holding facility, there have been documented cases of Border Patrol agents proactively seeking out water jugs left in the desert for migrants by groups like No More Deaths, an advocacy group based in Tuscon, Arizona, and destroying them before the migrants can get to them.

Officials previously denied that destroying water stations was part of CBP policy.

“The Border Patrol shares a common goal with non-governmental organizations to preserve human life and to prevent injury,” they said in January, after a video of an agent dumping out water went viral on social media. “We do not condone or encourage destruction or tampering with any water or food caches.”

Those that do survive the perilous journey to the United States still face a number of dangers, once they’ve crossed the border successfully.

Migrants processed through border checkpoints — like the 7-year-old and her family — are routinely forced into CBP holding cells to await their next steps. These cells are colloquially referred to as “hieleras” or “iceboxes” by those who have spent the 24-36 hours there before being transferred to a detention center.

In 2016, the National Immigration Law Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of three individuals who were subjected to deplorable conditions inside such CBP holding cells at a facility in Tuscon. Testimony from more than 75 immigrants revealed a litany of unlivable, inhumane conditions.

“The cold made me sick. I felt like I had a fever. My body hurt and I had a headache. My lip started blistering as well,” one migrant recalled.

Another migrant recounted, “It was so cold, I had a severe headache and backache. The Border Patrol agents took my sweater from me so all I was wearing was a short sleeve shirt. I tried to curl up on the floor and huddle with some of the other women but I was not able to get warm. During the night, I would wake up often and walk around the cell to try to warm myself up.”

In addition to the freezing cold temperatures, holding cells are often packed to the brim, with people forced to sleep on the bathroom floor, if they were able to sleep at all. Migrants have reported a lack of soap and medical care, adequate drinking water, and abuse from the guards.

It’s unclear whether the 7-year-old who died in CBP custody had faced such conditions or whether they may have sped up her death, which CBP attributed to exhaustion and dehydration.

However, the horrifying conditions in hieleras have been cited in a slew of other illnesses and fatalities among migrants entering the United States, including Roxana Hernandez, a 33-year-old transgender woman from Honduras who died in May. After five days in a freezing holding cell this past spring, Hernandez was transferred to the transgender unit at the Cibola County Correctional Center, a federal prison facility that contracts with ICE. She lasted one day there before being transferred to a hospital where she died of cardiac arrest and pneumonia.

Immigration activist groups have blamed the conditions and lack of medical care in the hieleras for her death.

CBP currently has the option of moving migrants in its care to temporary living facilities like Annunciation House, a church-run facility that has provided shelter to families detained and separated by ICE. Officials are also allowed to release migrants temporarily, giving them ankle bracelets to ensure they meet their mandatory immigration court dates, but the administration has repeatedly admonished this so-called “catch and release” policy, even though it has proven successful and significantly cheaper than current practices.