A 7-year-old Guatemalan girl found with her father and dozens of other migrants along a remote stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border suffered seizures and spiked a high fever in immigration custody and later died, federal officials said.
Her death raises questions about how apparent her sickness was. A Border Patrol form completed shortly after she was detained said she showed no signs of sickness. The form, obtained by The Associated Press, said she not sweating, had no tremors or visible trauma and was mentally alert. “Claims good health,” the form reads. The girl’s father appeared to have signed the form.
But, hours later, after she was placed on a bus, she started vomiting. She was not breathing when she arrived at a Border Patrol station. Emergency medical technicians revived her and she was flown to a hospital in El Paso, Texas, where she was found to have swelling in her brain and liver failure, officials said. She later died.
An autopsy was scheduled to determine her girl’s death. The results could take weeks.
An official with Guatemala’s foreign ministry identified the girl as Jackeline Caal and her father as 29-year-old Nery Caal. The official requested anonymity because he was not authorized to share information.
The father was driven to El Paso and was at the hospital when she died, officials said. He is not detained.
Jackeline’s death comes as increasing numbers of children and families are making the dangerous trek north from Central America and as immigration officials are being increasingly criticized for their treatment of migrants who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border. Homeland Security’s watchdog will review what happened in the girl’s case, federal officials said.
The pair were taken into custody at about 9:15 p.m. Dec. 6 in a group of 163 people in remote New Mexico, about 90 miles from the nearest Border Patrol station in Lordsburg. They were apprehended by four Border Patrol agents. The rugged, mountainous area is mostly deserted, home to ghost towns and abandon buildings from Old West homesteader days. It’s an unforgiving terrain where Geronimo made his last stand and it remains largely isolated with no cell service and few paved roads.
There’s a small Border Patrol operating base near where the group was found with food, water and bathrooms, but no medical help. The father completed the intake form and agents speak Spanish, but it’s possible that he spoke a Mayan dialect.
The migrants were bused from the area to Lordsburg in two groups, including about 50 minors without parents in the first group, officials said. The girl and her father didn’t start the 90-mile journey until about 4:30 a.m., when the bus returned.
The father said the girl was vomiting on the bus. When they arrived to the Border Patrol station in Lordsburg at about 6:30 a.m. Dec. 7, she was not breathing, officials said. Emergency medical technicians discovered the girl’s fever was 105.7 degrees Fahrenheit (40.9 degrees Celsius), and she was airlifted to the hospital. She died shortly after midnight on Dec. 8.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said on Fox News that the girl’s death was heart-wrenching and a sad example of the dangers of crossing the border.
“This family chose to cross illegally,” Nielsen said. “We’ll continue to look into the situation, but, again, I cannot stress enough how dangerous this journey (is) when migrants choose to come here illegally.”
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley called it a “horrific, tragic situation.”
“Our hearts go out to the family and to anyone who’s suffered any type of danger and peril that they see so often when they make that trek up from the southern border,” Gidley told reporters.
Gidley stressed the need for “common sense laws to disincentivize people” from walking across the border.
Guatemalan consular officials said they have spoken with the father who was deeply upset.
“It is important to show that, unfortunately, the places where migrants now enter are more dangerous and the distances they travel are greater,” consular officials said.
Immigration officials said hundreds of people who have been overcome by the harsh desert and sweltering conditions are saved by Border Patrol every year.
When a Border Patrol agent arrests someone, that person gets processed at a facility but usually spends no more than 72 hours in custody before either being transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement or, if the person is Mexican, quickly being deported home.
Immigrants, attorneys and activists have long raised issues with the conditions of Border Patrol holding cells. In Tucson, Arizona, an ongoing lawsuit claims holding cells are filthy, extremely cold and lacking basic necessities such as blankets. A judge overseeing that lawsuit has ordered the agency’s Tucson Sector, which patrols much of the Arizona-Mexico border, to provide blankets and mats to sleep on and to continually turn over surveillance footage from inside the cells.
Agents in Arizona see groups of more than 100 people, sometimes including infants and toddlers, on a regular basis.
Arresting such groups poses logistical problems for agents, who have to wait on transport vans that are equipped with baby seats to take the migrants to processing facilities, some which are at least a half-hour north of the border.
The death of the 7-year-old comes after a toddler died in May just after being released from an ICE family detention facility in Texas and as President Donald Trump’s administration attempts to ban people from asking for asylum if they cross the border illegally. A federal appeals court has temporarily blocked that ban, but the administration asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate it Tuesday.
The Washington Post first reported the girl’s story late Thursday.