Why migrant children are dying at the border in record numbers

It wasn't always like this.

Central American asylum seekers sit outside the bus station in San Bernardino, California, after they were released from three U.S. Border Patrol vans, May 22, 2019. (Photo credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Central American asylum seekers sit outside the bus station in San Bernardino, California, after they were released from three U.S. Border Patrol vans, May 22, 2019. (Photo credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Last September, a 10-year-old girl from El Salvador died in U.S. custody, but news of her death was only publicly reported for the first time on Wednesday — eight months later.

This is the sixth migrant child to die in U.S. custody in the last 8 months. For comparison, before her death, no child had reportedly died in U.S. custody since 2010.

The details of each case differ. In the latest case, the girl, who has yet to be identified, was in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) when she passed away. According to Mark Weber, an HHS spokesperson, she entered the care of an Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facility — the HHS office that cares for migrant children — in San Antonio, Texas, on March 4, 2018 in a “medically fragile” state, having a history of congenital heart defects.

“Following a surgical procedure, complications left the child in a comatose state. She was transported to a nursing facility in Phoenix, Arizona for palliative care in May after release from a San Antonio hospital,” Weber said in a statement to CBS News. “On September 26, she was transferred to an Omaha, Neb., nursing facility to be closer to her family. On September 29, the child was transported to Children’s Hospital of Omaha where she passed due to fever and respiratory distress.”


Unlike Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which are required to report in-custody deaths to Congress each year, ORR has no such requirement. Agency officials are required to notify local child welfare authorities and report such deaths internally, but are not required to announce them to the public.

That means we may not have a full account of how many migrants are dying in U.S. custody — even as the reports grow.

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, accused the government of “covering up” her death. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, incensed by the number of recent deaths, has openly and repeatedly called for a multi-agency investigation into the deaths of immigrant children in U.S. custody, involving the House Judiciary Committee, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General.

It didn’t used to be like this

Until late 2018, an immigrant child hadn’t died in U.S. custody since 2010. So what happened?

For one thing, the U.S. immigration system is not set up to process children in families. In 2003, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created, the vast majority of immigrants arriving to the United States at the southern border were single men from Mexico in search of economic opportunities.


In recent years, however, there has been a sharp increase in the number of children and families from the Northern Triangle of Central America, which includes El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The vast majority are fleeing their homes because targeted gang violence has made remaining in their country unthinkable. DHS can’t just swiftly deport or transfer them to ICE, particularly if they are applying for asylum, so they are forced to remain in Border Patrol custody longer.

Border Patrol, meanwhile, is only minimally equipped to provide proper medical care. A 2019  study from the Physicians for Human Rights suggests that the nation’s recent emphasis on border enforcement has led to more migrants at the border being killed or injured.

“Public health research has documented widening racial and ethnic health disparities as a result of punitive and discriminatory immigration enforcement practices within the militarized border zone,” Kathryn Hampton, author of the study wrote.

One example of those widening disparities is how indigenous immigrants are systematically denied medical care at a much higher rate than their non-indigenous immigrant counterparts. A study from the Center for Migration Studies found that only 24% of indigenous immigrants who asked for medical care while in U.S. custody received it.

But it’s not just about the change in migration patterns. Some immigration experts argue that the Trump administration’s own policies are contributing to the increase in the number of migrant children dying in U.S. custody.

The number of unaccompanied minors and families arriving at the southern border has been steadily increasing since 2012, but nothing was done to help accommodate this specific population. In 2019, Trump declared a national emergency and announced that the border has reached a “breaking point.”

Credit: Migration Policy Institute.
Credit: Migration Policy Institute.








“The most important thing they should have done when they saw those numbers increase is immediately marshal resources to the border to try and bring in medical care,” Ur Jaddou, Director of DHS Watch, told ThinkProgress. “Instead of focusing on the wall, and all that money they put into the wall and all that energy focused on the caravans… why were you not instead going to Congress and saying, ‘We need to build out facilities and we need to address this?’ Because they just didn’t until the refugee crisis continued and until it became what it is now.”


CBP got some funding from Congress in February to care for children and families, but the agency is asking for more. Requests for more CBP funds, however, are almost always tied to money for Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which Democrats are vehemently opposed to.

There is also reason to believe that Trump’s threats to shut down the border completely and the implementation of other anti-immigrant policies is partly responsible for the increase in families arriving at the border.

“These threats send a message that if you need asylum or refugee status, you need to do it now,” Jaddou said.

Credit: America's Voice.
Credit: America's Voice.








In 2017, the Trump administration ended the Central American Minors (CAM) program, which allowed children to apply for refugee status in their home countries in order to avoid the dangerous journey to the border and aimed to prevent a repeat of 2014, when there was a surge in unaccompanied minors arriving at the border. That decision — along with a lower cap on refugee resettlement overall — meant just 525 refugees were resettled in the United States from all of Latin America during fiscal year 2018.

With no way to apply for refugee protection at home, desperate Central Americans see no other other choice than to apply for asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. Had the CAM program remained intact, the number of Central American minors arriving to the border might not have increased as sharply as it did.

Other Trump administration policies, including threats to limit aid to Central American countries and the failure to channel more resources into more immigration judges, have also likely had an impact.

News of the 10-year-old Salvadoran girl’s death comes as the nation is grappling with the recent deaths of two Guatemalan boys who died after being detained at the border. Sixteen-year-old Carlos Hernandez Vazquez died in a Border Patrol facility on May 20 of complications from influenza, days before he was scheduled to be transferred to an ORR facility. Migrants have nicknamed Border Patrol facilities “hieleras,” or iceboxes, because of their frigid temperatures that often worsen diseases like pneumonia. The stations are designed for temporary stays of up to 72 hours only, but Hernandez Vazquez was forced to remain in CBP custody for a total of six days after a delay in transferring him to ORR.

A 2 1/2 year old boy from Guatemala died the same week, on May 14. The boy, who has yet to be identified, was formally released from CBP custody with his mother in early April after contracting pneumonia and a dangerously high fever. He remained in intensive care at a hospital in El Paso, Texas, until his death.

Juan de Leon Gutierrez, another 16-year-old Guatemalan boy, also died at a hospital in Texas. According to the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry, he contracted a severe infection in his frontal lobe and underwent surgery to reduce pressure in his head, but died on April 30 after spending weeks in intensive care.

In December, the back-to-back deaths of two Guatemalan children under the age of 9 — Jackelin Caal Maquin and Felipe Gómez Alonzo — made national headlines and put a spotlight on the lack of medical care CBP provides to immigrants in their custody. Both children died of bacterial infections that likely could have been prevented had they received proper medical care in a timely manner.