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Editorial: Desert death trap – NM’s southern border is rugged, remote and ruthless

There is one thing that can’t be disputed about the death of 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin. It is a tragedy regardless of where you stand on the immigration issue.

For better or worse, her death has become part of the narrative of an already emotionally charged issue, joining the photo of a child and mother fleeing tear gas at the border a few weeks ago and the stories of children being separated from their parents and held in jail cells earlier this year.

Jakelin died while in the custody of the Border Patrol after she and her father crossed the Mexican border in a rugged, remote portion of southern New Mexico.

The image of a 7-year-old girl dying after a long journey with her father and other migrants from Guatemala paints another unflattering picture of the work done by those who guard our southern border. And, at this point, it is an unfair one.

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus – including New Mexico’s District 3 Rep. Ben Ray Luján and incoming District 2 Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, both Democrats – traveled to the border last week retracing the route the migrant group took with the Border Patrol. They were critical of border officials and conditions they found. Texas Democrat Rep. Joaquin Castro used the photo-op to demand the head of Customs and Border Protection step down. California Democrat Rep. Raul Ruiz, a doctor, said vulnerable migrants, like children, should have their vital signs checked when taken into custody. Luján was upset there was no running water and just two portable toilets.

And that raises the question of whether they paid attention to where they were at all.

Jakelin and her father, Nery Gilberto Caal Cuz, 29, were with a group of 163 migrants who crossed the border near Antelope Wells in New Mexico’s bootheel. The border station is a “forward operating base” with bare-bones facilities in the desolate desert at least 90 miles from anything save the odd farmhouse. The four agents assigned there work eight-day shifts because it’s too far to drive home on a daily basis. And while there is a paved road, there are no utilities, much less EMTs.

CBP officials said the group of migrants, including the girl and her father, had access to water, food and bathrooms. Caal Cuz signed forms agreeing he and his daughter did not have any medical needs or health problems, according to officials. The paperwork is in English, but Border Patrol agents speak Spanish and translated, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials.

There is a question of whether Caal Cuz understood because he speaks Q’eqchi, a Mayan dialect, with Spanish his second language. He also reportedly disputes the initial story his daughter went without food or water for several days before they turned themselves in to Border Patrol on Dec. 6. And on Wednesday, he contended through lawyers that “no water was provided to either him or his daughter” by the Border Patrol.

Shortly before the bus to take the group to Lordsburg departed at 5 a.m., Caal Cuz notified agents his daughter was sick and had been vomiting, according to CBP. An hour and a half later, when the bus arrived at the Border Patrol’s small operating station in Lordsburg, the child had stopped breathing.

In Lordsburg, Border Patrol agents revived Jakelin twice and Hidalgo Medical Services provided care before the girl was airlifted to a hospital in El Paso. She died less than 24 hours later.

The members of Congress are right, there needs to be a thorough investigation into what happened. Jakelin’s family deserves answers. So do the men and women who work border security.

But in the meantime we do not know what caused the child’s death or whether border agents should have realized earlier she was sick.

We do know there are no reports the migrants were treated cruelly. And that in a perfect world of unlimited resources, border agents would be able to provide water, food, blankets, interpreters and medical care when they come across migrants crossing in remote areas of New Mexico, Arizona and California.

But it is simply unreasonable to think they would be adequately equipped to meet myriad needs of an unknown number of migrants they might come across in such remote places.

If there is an early lesson to be learned from Jakelin’s death, it’s this: Lawmakers need to look inward as well as outward. It is essential Congress finally crafts and passes sensible immigration policy. We need to find a way to make our borders more secure. We need to ensure those who protect our borders are adequately equipped and trained. We also need to make the immigration process more humane and encourage migrants to come here legally through border crossings.

Because putting their health and welfare in the hands of smugglers and the harsh desert climate too often has tragic results.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.