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Another migrant child death, we need a border truth commission


Americans awoke on Christmas morning to hear that another Guatemalan child, 8-year-old Felipe Alonzo-Gómez, died in the custody of the Border Patrol on Christmas Eve. This follows the death on Dec. 8 of 7-year-old asylum seeker Jakelin Caal Maquín, also while in Border Patrol custody. Caal Maquin’s body was laid to rest in Guatemala on Christmas Day. 

Calls are mounting for an investigation into these deaths, including from family members, top Democrats and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants. But an investigation must be more than an inquest into the two cases. It must encompass the broader border policies that gave rise to these tragedies. This cannot be accomplished from within the Department of Homeland Security. It must be assigned to an independent, national body. It’s time for a truth commission for the border. 

The deaths of these two children spotlight problems that go well beyond the actions of individual border agents. While there are many instances of Border Patrol agents rescuing migrants in distress, there is also ample evidence of systematic abuse and inhumane conditions within the migrant holding facilities and detention centers, as well as a general lack of accountability within the border enforcement agency.

Former Border Patrol agent Francisco Cantú, for example, describes a “culture of cruelty” within the agency, noting that as an agent-in-training in 2009, a Border Patrol supervisor ordered him to deny water to detained migrants. 

According to a February 2018 Human Rights Watch report, border agents routinely hold families, including infants, in freezing cells, sometimes for days, a practice the human rights watchdog called “degrading and punitive” and a breach of international standards and the Border Patrol’s own stated policies. The report also noted a failure to provide sleeping mats to women and children being held, in violation of previous court orders.

A May 2018 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, based on 30,000 pages of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, alleges that immigrant children in the custody of U.S. border authorities suffered pervasive abuse ranging from insults and threats to physical and sexual assaults. These abuses occurred during the Obama administration from 2009 to 2014, the report states. In its reply to the ACLU, Customs and Border Protection denied the allegations of assault, but noted that in its spot inspections of border facilities, temperatures in the holding cells could be as low as 50 degrees.  

Earlier this year, the Tucson-based border humanitarian organization No More Deaths released a report based on several years of research, documenting the systematic destruction by Border Patrol agents of water jugs and humanitarian aid supplies left by humanitarian groups along migrant crossing routes in the treacherous southern Arizona desert, where thousands of migrants have died of dehydration and heat exposure since 2001.

The report includes videos of border agents slicing plastic water jugs and pouring the water onto the ground. At a meeting in Tucson with local community organizations in January, Tucson sector Border Patrol officials maintained that the destruction of humanitarian aid in the desert is not Border Patrol policy, but they refused to say whether disciplinary action was being taken, or even if there are any written guidelines to agents prohibiting such actions, stating only that an internal investigation was underway with Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General. 

We still do not have any public response by DHS as to the status of this investigation. Nor, for that matter, do we know anything about the results of the internal investigation into the Border Patrol shooting death in May of another young Guatemalan migrant, 19-year-old Claudia Patricia Gómez González. 

With the outcry over the deaths of the two Guatemalan children, and the threat of congressional hearings, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has been forced to pivot in her public statements. After blaming Jakelin Caal Maquin’s family earlier this month for “crossing illegally,” Nielsen’s statement in response to Felipe Alonzo-Gómez’ death included a pledge to expand medical screenings of migrants taken into U.S. custody. The question is, can we trust DHS to investigate and regulate itself on these matters? The answer is no. 

Homeland Security’s own medical experts warned four years ago that a migrant child could die in U.S. custody because of systemic problems in the provision of basic care. In a July 2018 letter to Congress, 14 major U.S. medical associations, including the American Medical Association, the American Pediatric Society, the American Psychiatric Society and the American Nurses Association, called for a congressional inquiry into immigrant detention, noting that “there is no amount of programming that can ameliorate the harms created by the very act of confining children to detention centers.” Over 10,000 migrant children are currently held in U.S. detention centers. 

A truth commission done rigorously can investigate and document not only specific allegations of abuse, but also the strategies that underlie such abuses. Here on the border, that strategy is to punish migrants as a form of deterrence. This includes sealing urban entry points to compel migrants and asylum seekers to cross the harsh desert, detaining people in the “icebox” holding cells, deporting people to unfamiliar cities, often in the middle of the night, family detention, and most recently, family separation. It’s a strategy that spans multiple administrations. 

The number of Border Patrol agents has risen from 4,000 agents in the mid-1990s to over 20,000 today. Yet, as historian Greg Grandin shows, in its nearly 100-year history, the Border Patrol has never faced even minimal public scrutiny. This sets the Border Patrol apart even from other controversial federal agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, whose misdeeds and abuses of power were investigated in a post-Watergate bipartisan congressional probe called theChurch Committee, led by the late Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho). 

What would a truth commission for the border look like? One model could be the Church Committee. Another model could be the experience of Greensboro, North Carolina, where a truth commission comprised of prominent community leaders investigated civil-rights era murders and the failure of the justice system, presenting its report in 2006. Or perhaps it could be a hybrid: with congressional subpoena powers and the participation of nationally recognized civil society leaders.

Key is that a border truth commission investigation should be comprehensive and public. It should produce substantive recommendations not to patch up existing border policies, but to question where those policies came from, where they are taking us, and what sort of deeper changes we need. We owe at least that much to Jakelin Caal Maquín, Felipe Alonzo-Gómez and Claudia Patricia Gómez González.

Elizabeth Oglesby is associate professor of Latin American Studies and Geography at the University of Arizona, Tucson. She is co-editor of “Guatemala: History, Culture, Politics” and “Guatemala: The Question of Genocide.” She was a researcher with the Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification in the late 1990s.

Tags Border Patrol Elizabeth Oglesby Immigration Kirstjen Nielsen Migrant children Migrant crisis

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