WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — On Friday, the Department of Homeland Security officially confirmed the death of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who attempted to cross the border illegally with her father Thursday, Dec. 6.
She was identified by the Guatemalan consulate as Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin, from the Alta Verapaz region in northern Guatemala. Her father is 29-year-old Nery Gilberto Caal Cuz.
Maquin was in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection for approximately eight to ten hours. According to DHS officials, she died early Friday, Dec. 8 at the Providence Children's Hospital in El Paso, Texas after suffering cardiac arrest and liver failure.
In a statement Friday, the Department of Homeland Security said its agents "took every possible step" to save the 7-year-old girl's life. "Border Patrol always takes care of individuals in their custody and does everything in their power to keep them safe," a spokesperson said Friday. "Unfortunately, despite our best efforts and the best efforts of the medical team treating the child, we were unable to stop this tragedy from occurring."
In an interview with Fox and Friends, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen called the incident "heartbreaking," adding, "This is just a very sad example of the dangers of this journey."
The incident raised many questions about the dangers migrants face traveling from Central America to the United States as well as the treatment of children under the Trump administration's immigration policies.
Almost a week after Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin died, Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection officials confirmed her death and addressed the questions about how she died in a call with reporters.
According to DHS and CBP officials, Maquin and Cuz were part of a group of 163 immigrants who had been traveling north through Mexico for a long time. Jakelin was apprehended by Border Patrol agents at 9:15 p.m. Dec. 6. She and her father were attempting to illegally cross into the United States in a remote section of southwestern New Mexico near the Antelope Wells port of entry.
The group of 163 migrants was detained at Antelope Wells, a small, remote forward operating base with limited infrastructure and resources. Each of the migrants went through an initial screening by one of the four Border Patrol agents on duty. The screenings included a visual exam to identify possible medical problems as well as a series of 20 questions translated orally from English to Spanish by a Border Patrol agent.
The CBP agent who examined Jakelin said she showed no signs of illness. When Cuz was asked if his child had "any current sickness," he said no and signed the form where his answers were recorded. It is not clear if there may have been a communication problem at this stage.
Shortly before midnight, agents began transporting the migrants to the nearest fully equipped station approximately 95 miles north in Lordsburg, N.M. With access to only one bus, Border Patrol agents made multiple trips, first transporting a group of approximately 50 unaccompanied minors, then returning by 4 a.m. to bring another group, which included Jakelin and her father.
While waiting for the bus the detained migrants reportedly had access to food, water and bathrooms. The Washington Post earlier reported that the 7-year-old "reportedly had not eaten or consumed water for several days."
After the second group of migrants had boarded the bus, the father first alerted CBP agents that his daughter was sick. She began vomiting on the bus. Border Patrol agents were unable to provide immediate assistance but alerted emergency medical technicians at Lordsburg Station to prepare to give the child emergency medical attention.
Upon arrival at 6:30 a.m., Maquin had stopped breathing. CBP emergency medical technicians revived her twice and determined she had a fever of 105.7 degrees. They contacted the Hidalgo County Emergency Medical Services who were on the scene within minutes and decided to airlift the young girl to the Providence Children's Hospital in El Paso, Texas. Her father followed shortly after and was transported to the hospital in a government vehicle, accompanied by Border Patrol personnel.
The air ambulance departed the CBP station at 7:45 a.m. and at 11 a.m., medics reported the child had gone into cardiac arrest. She was revived again and kept on breathing machine. A CT scan indicated brain swelling and she was further diagnosed with liver failure.
According to officials, Jakelyn Maquin died early in the morning last Friday, Dec. 8. Her father was reportedly "on the scene" when she passed.
The Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General is taking the lead in investigating the circumstances of the death and will determine whether agents followed all appropriate policies. Customs and Border Protection Office of Personnel Management is also reviewing the incident. Medical professionals are expected to perform an autopsy which will likely take several weeks to complete.
Civil rights organizations, immigration advocacy groups and medical professionals have called for an independent investigation into the circumstances and numerous unanswered questions surrounding Maquin's death.
The most important question is whether Maquin's death was avoidable. According to Dr. Colleen Kraft, the president of American Academy of Pediatrics, it was.
"Her death was preventable," Dr. Kraft wrote in a statement to Sinclair Broadcast Group. "Instead of improving conditions for children in custody, the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services are proposing to expand the detention of children and families. We cannot let this happen."
The American Academy of Pediatrics is demanding a thorough, independent investigation of the government's detention practices, including providing experts with "unfettered access" to sites where children are held in federal custody. "Now more than ever, this oversight is essential," Kraft insisted.
The American Civil Liberties Union Border Rights Center, which has challenged several of President Donald Trump's immigration policies in court, has also demanded a "rigorous" investigation and "serious reforms" to prevent future deaths. And on Friday, the Border Network for Human Rights executive director, Gabriela Castaneda, called for "a transparent, rapid, quick investigation of how Jakelin died."
Each year, Border Patrol agents document hundreds of deaths along the southwest border. Nearly 300 people died last year from exposure to the elements, dehydration, hypothermia, injuries, drowning and other causes. Border Patrol agents have also saved thousands of lives. In 2018, trained CBP personnel performed more than 4,300 humanitarian rescues.
In recent years, CBP has come under scrutiny for unsafe conditions at its detention facilities and inadequate medical staffing. According to the agency, there are 1,300 CBP personnel who have emergency medicine training.
According to Mary Kenney, senior staff attorney at the American Immigration Council, Maquin's death and other medical incidents at the border suggest those numbers are inadequate and additional trained medical personnel are needed.
"A big problem with the Border Patrol is that they don't have qualified medical personnel to do the screenings either in the field when individuals are first apprehended or when they are taken in for subsequent medical screenings at the stations," she explained. "This girl's death demonstrates why it is so essential."
The American Immigration Council is among the groups that sued the Department of Homeland Security in 2015 over the detention of men, women and children in dangerous conditions, including freezing, overcrowded cells. Among the claims in the lawsuit, which is still pending, is the lack of qualified medical personnel to properly screen at-risk individuals.
A CBP official told reporters Friday there is no indication Maquin's death was caused by inattention to medical symptoms. The official further said it could not be attributed to the fact that there were four agents screening 163 border crossers. "Our agents are almost always outnumbered in the middle of the night. That's the work that we do," the official stated.
There are further questions about why it took so long for the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection to publicly acknowledge Maquin's death. For example, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan was brought before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday for an oversight hearing. McAleenan made no mention of the incident.
Members of the House Judiciary have said they intend to get answers from the Department of Homeland Security when Secretary Nielsen testifies next Thursday. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., tweeted that he and others "will be demanding immediate answers to this tragedy."