A seven-year-old girl from Guatemala has died while in the custody of the Border Patrol. The girl, who crossed the border with her father on Dec. 6, was part of a group of migrants that crossed the US-Mexico border illegally and turned themselves in to authorities. The girl had been in custody for about eight hours when she died of dehydration.
The incident was initially reported by the Washington Post and confirmed by US authorities. Per the report, CBP records indicate the girl and her father were taken into custody about 10:00 p.m. on Dec. 6. near Lordsburg, N.M. The pair were part of a group of 163 people who illegally crossed the border and then approached Border Patrol agents to turn themselves in.
Government records show that the girl began having seizures at 6:25 a.m. Emergency medical personnel responded and found her temperature to be 105.7 degrees. CBP told the Post in a statement that she “reportedly had not eaten or consumed water for several days.”
The girl was transported by helicopter to Providence Children’s Hospital in El Paso, about 150 miles away. Per the statement, she went into cardiac arrest and was treated, “however, the child did not recover and died at the hospital less than 24 hours after being transported.” The hospital listed the cause of death as septic shock, fever, and dehydration.
“Our sincerest condolences go out to the family of the child,” CBP spokesman Andrew Meehan said in the statement to the Post. The girl’s father is reportedly still in El Paso awaiting a meeting with Guatemalan consular officials. The identities of the girl and her father have not been released.
“Border Patrol agents took every possible step to save the child’s life under the most trying of circumstances,” Meehan said. “As fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, we empathize with the loss of any child.”
The Post notes that food and water are normally provided to illegal immigrants in federal custody, but it was not known whether the girl had received either before suffering the seizures. The AP reports that migrants often spend as much as 72 hours in custody at a Border Patrol facility before being transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or being deported back to Mexico if that is their country of origin. The size of the group that the girl was with may have resulted in longer than usual processing times for the small Border Patrol station at Lordsburg.
On Tuesday, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told the Senate that current facilities are not prepared for the new reality of large groups of migrant families crossing the border illegally. “Our Border Patrol stations were built decades ago to handle mostly male single adults in custody, not families and children,” he said.
The CBP said that they plan to do an autopsy to determine the exact cause of death, but that results will not be known for several weeks. An internal investigation is also underway to determine whether proper procedures were followed.
Even though the facts are not all in, both sides are taking aim at their usual targets. Already, some on the right are taking to social media to blame the girl’s father for her death. From the left, the blame is being placed squarely on law enforcement.
The death of a Guatemalan seven-year-old girl is a tragedy, but it is a tragedy with more than one cause. When examining aviation accidents, we look at the error chain. If any of the links in the chain is broken, the accident might have been avoided.
In the girl’s death, the chain begins with the poverty and violence in Guatemala. I’ve traveled through Guatemala and seen the squalor of the small villages where people have few opportunities to make their lives better. The chain continues with the long walk north that covered thousands of miles and left a small girl exhausted. The next link is the final stretch of the journey that led across the arid wastes of northern Mexico where there is little water. And, yes, a link in the chain is the fact that the lack of a security barrier encourages migrants to undertake this perilous journey.
To be fair, another link in the chain is our broken immigration system. Under our current system, legal immigration is so difficult that it incentivizes illegal immigration. Unrest in Central America and new Trump Administration restrictions on legal immigration, such as a reduced number of work visas, have made the problem worse. There is an increasing desire to immigrate and a decreasing number of slots. For many migrants, the need to find a job in the US to support their families makes the walk across the border enticing.
The final links in the chain that led to the girl’s death seem to have been the size of her group and the wait time at the Border Patrol station. It is likely that she sat for hours, quietly dying, unnoticed while other migrants were booked into the facility. By the time she started having seizures, it may have already been too late to save her life.
There is so far no evidence that the Border Patrol acted improperly in the situation, but that doesn’t make the girl’s death any less of a tragedy. I certainly don’t believe that they intentionally let a child suffer and die, but the truth is that by refusing to fix our immigration system, we played a role in her death.
As I’ve written before, there is only one way to resolve the crisis at the border and that is with comprehensive immigration reform that includes both stepped-up security including at least a partial barrier and an overhauled legal immigration system. The carrot-and-stick approach of stiffer penalties for illegal immigration and more opportunities to come here legally is the only approach that has any chance of becoming law. The longer we take to acknowledge this, the more little girls will die in the desert.