Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
EL PASO – The Border Patrol is performing medical checks on all children in custody, with an emphasis on those younger than 10 years old after the death of a second migrant child in New Mexico.
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen announced the new measures in “response to the unprecedented surge in children in our custody” in a statement released Wednesday.
“I have personally engaged with the Centers for Disease Control to request that their experts investigate the uptick in sick children crossing our borders and identify additional steps hospitals along the border should be undertaking to prepare for and to treat these children,” Nielsen said.
Additionally, she said the U.S. Coast Guard Medical Corps will provide an assessment of Customs and Border Protection’s medical programs and make appropriate recommendations for improvements.
The new measures were put in place after the death of an 8-year-old boy in Alamogordo on Christmas Eve.
Felipe Alonzo Gomez and his father were in temporary holding cells at the Border Patrol U.S. 70 checkpoint in Alamogordo when the boy became deathly ill on Christmas Eve.
“The child and his father were transferred because of capacity levels at the El Paso Station,” according to a timeline provided by CBP.
The timeline also lists numerous “welfare checks” by Border Patrol agents, which are defined as an “agent directly observes all detainees are safe and secure, and attends to any issues observed or relayed by those detained,” according to CBP.
There were multiple welfare checks from Dec. 18, when the father and son were taken into custody in El Paso, to Christmas Eve, when the child received treatment, reportedly for a cold, at the Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center.
The hospital released the boy back to the holding facility with a fever of 103 degrees that evening, prescribing an antibiotic and ibuprofen.
But when the boy’s condition deteriorated in the holding facility, Border Patrol agents took the child back to the hospital, where he died.
The Office of the Medical Investigator in Albuquerque will perform an autopsy.
“These detention facilities are no place for children,” said Cynthia Pompa, advocacy manager for the ACLU Border Rights Center. “The fact remains that there is no way to humanely detain children; the agency should seek proven alternatives to detention models to minimize the time any child remains in their custody,” Pompa said in a statement released Wednesday.
Congresswoman and New Mexico Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham said Wednesday that she is examining how the state can help protect families and children arriving at the border and taken into custody.
“States are going to have to step up,” she told reporters in Albuquerque. “People need to be held accountable.”
Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who takes office as governor on Tuesday, said she is looking into the state’s licensing and oversight authority.
“We must protect these children,” she said.
Federal agents, she said, are failing to adequately assess the health care needs of people they take into custody.
“Those individual agents should be held personally liable for these kids,” Lujan Grisham said.
The boy’s father remained at the Alamogordo station pending transfer to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The man and his young son had turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents a week before Christmas after crossing the border illegally in El Paso about three miles west of the Paso del Norte international bridge.
Officials did not say whether the father and son were seeking asylum, like the vast majority of Central Americans showing up at the border.
“The Administration’s policy of turning people away from legal ports of entry, otherwise known as metering, is putting families and children in great danger. We learned this first-hand last week during our Congressional oversight trip to Lordsburg Station,” said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, said in a statement released after the boy’s death.
Castro, chairman-elect of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, led a delegation that toured Border Patrol facilities in New Mexico after the death of Jakelin Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died in Border Patrol custody Dec. 8.
After the second child’s death, CBP said it was considering “options for surge medical assistance from interagency partners” including the Coast Guard, the Department of Defense, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Health and Human Services. CBP is also “reviewing all available custody options to relieve capacity issues at Border Patrol stations and checkpoints in the El Paso sector,” which includes all of New Mexico, according to CBP.
Migrant shelters on both sides of the border are coping with an influx of asylum seekers. This week, ICE released hundreds of families onto the streets of El Paso near the Greyhound bus station.
Most migrants stay on the border briefly until relatives elsewhere in the country send them bus tickets. Adult asylum seekers are usually set free wearing ankle tracking devices with orders to appear for court hearings.
Annunciation House, which works to provide temporary shelter for migrants and refugees with help from churches in El Paso and Las Cruces, is struggling to find space for Central American parents and kids as temperatures drop and rain is forecast in the region.
The Trump administration said last week that it reached an agreement with Mexico for Central American asylum applicants to “remain in Mexico” until they appear before an immigration judge who decides their case.
Across the border in Ciudad Juárez, Casa del Migrante has stopped accepting new arrivals. The migrant shelter affiliated with the Catholic Diocese of Ciudad Juárez can house up to 1,500 but is “struggling to feed” the 400 who remain at the facility, Rosa Maria Parra, a shelter worker, said Wednesday.