COLLEEN LONG, ASTRID GALVAN and SONIA PEREZ D. | THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON — U.S. immigration officials on Friday defended their actions in the detention of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died two days after she and her father were taken into custody along a remote stretch of the U.S. border.
The girl, identified by a Guatemalan official as Jackeline Caal, had gone days without food and water, a Department of Homeland Security statement said. Yet immigration officials said she did not appear to be ill when detained.
A Border Patrol form completed shortly after she was stopped said she was not sweating, had no tremors or visible trauma and was mentally alert. “Claims good health,” the form reads. Jackeline’s father appeared to have signed the form, which was obtained by The Associated Press.
But, hours later, after Jackeline 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.
The agents speak Spanish, but the father and daughter were from an area in northern Guatemala called Raxruha in Alta Verapaz and may have spoken a Mayan dialect, not Spanish.
An autopsy was scheduled to determine the girl’s death. The results could take weeks.
“The agents involved are deeply affected and empathize with the father over the loss of his daughter,” said U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan. “We cannot stress enough the dangers posed by traveling long distances, in crowded transportation, or in the natural elements through remote desert areas without food, water and other supplies.”
The girl’s identity was provided to AP by an official with Guatemala’s foreign ministry, who identified the father as 29-year-old Nery Caal. The official requested anonymity because he was not authorized to share information. It was later confirmed by Customs and Border Protection officials.
Caal was driven to El Paso and was at the hospital when his daughter 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. The group was apprehended by four Border Patrol agents. The rugged, mountainous area is mostly deserted, home to ghost towns and abandoned 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. They were found near the Antelope Wells port of entry, which was closed when they arrived. It’s not clear if they had been trying to cross legally.
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 at 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 a hospital. She died shortly after midnight on Dec. 8.
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley called Jackeline’s death “a horrific, tragic situation” and called for “commonsense laws to disincentivize people from coming up from the border,” crossing illegally.
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 is 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, 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, 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 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.