Young girl's death draws new scrutiny over US treatment of migrants

The death of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl in U.S. custody is drawing renewed scrutiny of the Trump administration's treatment of migrants who have crossed the border illegally.

The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) inspector general said Friday that it was investigating the circumstances surrounding Jakelin Caal Maquin's death after she was taken into custody earlier this month.

A DHS official said the agency's transparency practices are also under review after it took the department nearly a week to publicly announce the incident.

Officials say the girl died of dehydration and shock after she was apprehended with her father and more than 160 other migrants on Dec. 5 near a Border Patrol outpost in a remote area of New Mexico called Antelope Wells.

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 She was initially screened that night by Border Patrol agents. Her initial screening revealed no immediate medical concerns, and her father signed a form stating she had no ongoing sickness, a DHS official said.

Caal and her father, who emigrated from Guatemala's drought-stricken Alta Verapaz region, spent most of the night at Antelope Wells with other detained migrants. 

A Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official said that migrants at the Antelope Wells facility received food and water and had access to bathrooms.

Caal stayed behind with family units and adults as a group of unaccompanied minors took the first transport out to a larger federal facility in Lordsburg, N.M., the CBP official said.

Her father told agents that Caal was ill at 6 a.m., when she and other immigrants were on a bus from Antelope Wells to Lordsburg. 

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Caal was flown by helicopter from Lordsburg at 7:45 a.m. and taken to a hospital in El Paso, Texas, where doctors determined she'd had no food or water for days.

She died later that morning.

DHS insisted Friday that it was not to blame for Caal's death. Border Patrol agents handled her apprehension, along with that of 162 others who crossed the southwest border illegally earlier this month, in accordance with regulations, officials said.

"My heart goes out to the family for all of DHS,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenKirstjen Nielsen drops out of Atlantic Media event after liberal backlash Pence taps former DHS spokeswoman as his new press secretary DHS officials called lawmaker visit to migrant detention facility a 'Hill stunt' MORE said Friday morning during an appearance on "Fox & Friends."

“This is just a very sad example of the dangers of this journey," Nielsen added, while noting that the family had crossed into the U.S. illegally.

Advocates say Caal's case illustrates a pattern of inhumane treatment of migrants by federal officials.

"The tragic and preventable death of an innocent seven-year old girl should not be seen as a mistake made in an otherwise humane system, but rather a deliberately cruel and dehumanizing system that has produced yet another death," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an immigrant rights advocacy group.

Democrats zeroed in on Caal's death, which they argue is a consequence of the administration's focus on building President TrumpDonald John TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE's proposed border wall.

"I am devastated by this news, but I am hardly surprised. The Administration has repeatedly shown a disinterest in solving immigration issues — instead leveraging Central America’s refugee crisis for their own political gain," said Rep. Lou CorreaJose (Lou) Luis CorreaBlue Dog Democrats urge action on election security House Democrats unveil bill to ensure citizenship for children of service members Members to have little time to question Mueller MORE (D-Calif.), the presumptive incoming head of the House Homeland Security Oversight Subcommittee.

"This young girl was a casualty of the president’s obsession with building an unnecessary border wall, instead of investing in the resources and training our national security professionals need," added Correa.

By law, DHS must notify Congress of the death of immigrants in federal custody within 24 hours. But Democrats, in a letter to DHS acting Inspector General John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE on Friday, said they learned of the incident through media reports one week after Caal's death."You should investigate CBP’s failure to timely notify Congress of this incident."

"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,” Democrats wrote in the letter.

DHS officials lamented Caal's death, but advised would-be migrant parents to avoid the dangers of attempting illegal border crossings.

“This family chose to cross illegally,” Nielsen said Friday morning during her Fox News interview. “They were about 90 miles away from where we could process them. It took a such a large crowd, it took our Border Patrol folks a couple times to get them all.” 

A CBP official said "there’s no indication that it was lack of attention that resulted in [the death]," but added the agency had to prioritize aid to unaccompanied minors with limited resources in a remote part New Mexico.

Still, Democrats said DHS's focus on deportations and wall construction amount to a mismanagement of available resources.

"The Department of Homeland Security leadership must be held responsible for their failure to properly care for migrants in their custody and their inability to lead the hardworking officers under their command," said Correa. 

Approximately 15,000 minors are being held by the U.S. in immigration detention facilities, which are at 92 percent capacity, NPR reported this week.

In their letter to the acting DHS inspector general on Friday, Democrats asked for further investigation into the circumstances surrounding Caal's death.

Democrats noted that would-be asylum seekers have been turned away at legal ports of entry, forcing them to attempt riskier illegal border crossings.

"Due to the seriousness of this tragedy and the many questions that remain, we request you initiate an investigation into this incident, as well as CBP policies or practices that may have contributed to the child’s death," wrote the Democrats, led by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who is expected to take over the powerful House Judiciary Committee in January.

"The investigation should focus on policies and practices designed to protect health and safety, as well as policies and practices that may result in increased migration through particularly harsh terrain," it added.

The scrutiny also comes as the Trump administration faces off with Democrats over the president's demand for billions of dollars to fund a border wall.

Congress must pass a Homeland Security appropriations bill by Dec. 21 to avoid a partial government shutdown, while lawmakers remain divided over funding for the wall.

Democrats have hounded Trump for days and have resisted his calls for full funding for the wall after he told Democrats leaders Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSchumer, Pelosi push Trump to back universal background check bill Sinema says she would back Kennedy in race against Markey Democrats threaten to withhold defense votes over wall MORE (N.Y.) and Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTimeline: The Trump whistleblower complaint DC statehood push faces long odds despite record support Ukraine could badly damage both Donald Trump and the Democrats MORE (Calif.) in a televised Oval Office meeting that he would "take the mantle" of a shutdown over the wall.

Lawmakers are wrestling over a House proposal that includes Trump's requested $5 billion for a wall and a Senate proposal that allocates funds to other DHS programs, but includes just $1.6 billion for border security.

Rep. Lucille Roybal-AllardLucille Roybal-AllardEPA's bold step forward: Good for animals and science, better for people Trump rips Puerto Rico as 'corrupt' as storm approaches Schumer blasts Trump officials: Diverting FEMA money to border 'backwards and cruel' MORE (D-Calif.), the expected incoming chair of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, criticized the administration on Friday for requesting $5 billion for wall construction, rather than other Homeland Security provisions. 

Roybal-Allard said in the weekly Democratic address that Trump is "proposing squandering $5 billion on this border wall," adding instead, "We need funding to hire more law enforcement agents to focus on opioid, gang, trade and child exploitation investigations."