U.S. Border Patrol failed to conduct "regular and frequent" welfare checks on a 16-year-old Guatemalan migrant boy who died in the agency's custody in 2019, and at least one agent reported checks that never happened, an internal government probe found.
By failing to frequently monitor Carlos Gregorio Hernández Vásquez during his stay inside a Border Patrol station cell in south Texas, U.S. agents violated internal Customs and Border Protection policy, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General concluded this week after a years-long investigation.
When he died in May 2019, Hernández Vásquez, whoas an unaccompanied child after leaving an indigenous community in Guatemala, became the sixth migrant minor to die after entering U.S. custody during a six-month period starting in December 2018. An later determined the Guatemalan teenager died of the flu and complications from other infections.
On Friday, Democratic Representative Bennie Thompson, chair of the House Homeland Security committee, urged the DHS Inspector General to release the investigation's full report, saying the press release issued by the watchdog previewed "deeply troubling failures" by CBP.
"It is critical that the OIG share its full final report and CBP take corrective action to help ensure a tragedy like this never occurs again," Thompson said. "The Committee will be continuing its investigation into this matter, including whether those who falsified records in this case were held accountable."
In a statement, CBP confirmed it received the inspector general's report earlier this week and that it was reviewing it to determine whether "additional investigation" is needed. The agency also said it has taken "substantial action" to ensure migrants in its custody have access to medical care.
"Once that process is complete, the OIG report will be referred to CBP management for review and evaluation," CBP added. "Should management determine there was a violation of agency policy or CBP's Standards of Conduct, appropriate corrective action will be initiated in accordance with applicable law, regulations, and collective bargaining requirements."
The Justice Department declined to prosecute anyone after being presented with the investigators' findings, "citing a lack of any criminal violations and a lack of criminal intent," the DHS inspector general said.
The inspector general's findings raise further questions about CBP's actions before Hernández Vásquez's death, as well as the agency's initial public account of the incident, which garnered significant outcry.
Barring exceptional circumstances, CBP is required by law to transfer unaccompanied children to shelters overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours of taking them into custody. However, CBP agents held Hernández Vásquez for a week, citing the sharp increase in migrant apprehensions in the spring of 2019.
When reporting his death, CBP said Hernandez Vasquez was "found un-responsive" during a welfare check on the morning of May 20, 2019. However, video obtained by ProPublica in December of that year showed that Hernández Vásquez's motionless body was discovered by his cellmate, another unaccompanied migrant boy, who alerted border agents.
The video also suggested that CBP agents failed to monitor or acknowledge the visible distress Hernández Vásquez endured during his final, agonizing moments inside that concrete cell.
In the footage, which begins at 1:19 a.m., Hernández Vásquez can be seen coming from the toilet area of the cell, where the other boy is sleeping under a Mylar blanket. He appears disoriented.
After sitting, he can be seen lying down on his face on the concrete surface. Hernández Vásquez then gets up and moves out of the camera's view for several minutes. At 1:24 a.m., the footage shows him collapsing face down on the floor.
At around 1:36 a.m., Hernández Vásquez gets back up one last time and walks towards the cell's toilet before seeming to collapse, this time on his back. The teenager can be seen moving his arms and legs. By 1:39 a.m. his body appeared motionless.
ProPublica said the footage cuts off at around 1:47 a.m, with a four-hour gap before the footage starts again at around 5:48 a.m. At that time, Hernández Vásquez's motionless body appears to be in the same position and place.
The other migrant boy in the cell wakes up at 6:05 a.m., discovers Hernández Vásquez's body and goes to the cell door to get the attention of officers outside.
In its summary this week, the inspector general said an independent medical examiner classified Hernández Vásquez's cause of death as "natural from H1N1 and bacterial/staph infections, which would have resulted in a rapidly fatal outcome, even with immediate and appropriate treatment."
Representatives for the office of the inspector general did not respond to a request to provide the full report on Hernández Vásquez's death.
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