WASHINGTON/TAOS, New Mexico (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s internal watchdog will investigate the death of a 7-year-old Guatemalan migrant which occurred after she was detained by U.S. border agents, officials said on Friday.
The Trump administration defended the treatment of the child, identified as Jakelin Caal by a Guatemalan official, and said there was no indication that she had any medical problems until several hours after she and her father were taken into U.S. custody on Dec. 6. The Guatemalan government had earlier identified the girl as Jackeline Caal.
Initial news reports said Caal died of dehydration and exhaustion. On Friday, U.S. officials said she had suffered cardiac arrest, brain swelling and liver failure.
The Office of the Inspector General, which looks into accusations of misconduct by public employees, will take the lead on the case. It said it would share the results of its investigation with the government, Congress and the public.
News of the child’s death has added to criticism of President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policies from immigrant advocates and Democrats in Congress. Democratic Senator Dick Durbin on Friday repeated his call on Twitter for DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to resign, citing the case.
Nielsen described the death as “heart-wrenching.”
“My heart goes out to the family, all of DHS. This is just a very sad example of the dangers of this journey,” she said in an interview with Fox News Channel.
Record numbers of parents travelling with children are being apprehended while trying to cross the U.S. border with Mexico. In November, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers detained 25,172 members of “family units,” the highest monthly number ever recorded, the agency said.
The Trump administration has tried to deter people from crossing the border between ports of entry illegally to seek asylum, while also restricting access to official ports of entry. That has created a potential months-long wait for asylum applicants, including those who came as part of a large ‘caravan’ of Central Americans this year.
Caal and her father, who a Guatemalan official identified as 29-year-old Nery Caal, were detained after arriving on Dec. 6 at around 9:15 p.m. local time at the Antelope Wells port of entry, in a remote part of New Mexico, along with a group of over 160 migrants, U.S. officials said.
Four Border Patrol agents were on scene, and no medical staff were present, said a CBP official, on condition of anonymity.
“These aliens had travelled through Mexico for some period of time before they reached us,” the CBP official said. “They were actually in our custody for a very short time.”
A border agent asked the father around 20 questions as part of an initial medical screening. He checked “no” on a form asking if the child had any illnesses, a DHS official told reporters on Friday on condition of anonymity.
The form was provided in English, and the interview was conducted in Spanish, the CBP official said.
“The questions were asked, the observations were made, the father was there, and there was no indication that she had any health conditions,” the official said.
The Guatemalan foreign ministry said in a statement that Caal’s parents’ native tongue is Q’eqchi’, a Mayan language. Nery Caal told Guatemalan officials that he felt more comfortable speaking Q’eqchi’ than Spanish, the foreign ministry said.
“They speak Spanish but they don’t understand Spanish 100 percent,” said Tekandi Paniagua, a Guatemalan consular official in Del Rio, Texas who spoke to Nery Caal on Saturday and Monday, in an interview with Reuters.
At around 4:30 a.m. on Dec. 7, around seven hours after arriving at the border, the girl and her father boarded a bus for the Lordsburg border station in New Mexico, about 95 miles (153 km) away. While they were waiting for the bus, they had access to water and restrooms, the CBP official said.
Just before the bus departed at 5 a.m., Nery Caal told agents that Jakelin was vomiting. By the time the bus arrived at the station at 6:30 a.m., Caal was not breathing. She was treated by Border Patrol medical technicians and emergency services who arrived shortly after, and then taken to a hospital in El Paso, Texas.
A brain scan revealed swelling and the girl was diagnosed with liver failure. She died early in the morning on Dec. 8, with her father at the hospital, the CBP official said.
Nery Caal was released by Border Patrol under an order of supervision, and is staying at a migrant shelter in El Paso, Paniagua said. Paniagua said Nery Caal told him he had crossed the border planning to turn himself in to U.S. authorities, and will try to stay in the United States.
Senate Democrats criticized the Trump administration for not revealing Caal’s death for nearly a week.
A Congressional requirement directs CBP to report the death of individuals in its custody within 24 hours to the appropriations committees in both the Senate and House of Representatives. Jay Tilton, a spokesman for the Senate appropriations committee, said in an email that it “was not alerted” to Caal’s death.
A House Democratic aide said on condition of anonymity that members of the appropriations committee in that chamber were also not alerted to Caal’s death, and have asked DHS and CBP to explain.
Senior House Democrats wrote in a letter that the watchdog should investigate the delay in informing Congress. “It is hard to overstate our frustration with the fact that we learned of this incident through media reports one week after the incident occurred,” they said.
CBP officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A DHS official on Friday declined to comment on the agency’s conversations with members of Congress.
Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati and Andrew Hay, additional reporting by Makini Brice and Susan Heavey in Washington, and Christine Murray in Mexico City; Editing by Frances Kerry and Rosalba O'Brien