Washington — Citing the deaths of five migrant children apprehended by U.S. authorities since December, Democratic lawmakers accused the Trump administration of presiding over an "epidemic of death" at the U.S.-Mexico border.
"Make no mistake. This is a pattern of death. This is an epidemic of death by the Trump administration," Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas said during a press conference Tuesday in response to a question by CBS News. "As I mentioned, nobody had died for 10 years. And in the last six months, you've had five deaths."
Pressed by CBS News if the recent deaths were emblematic of a systemic problem at Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that warrants an overhaul of the agency, Castro replied, "I certainly believe so." CBP is typically the first agency migrants encounter when they cross the southern border in between or at ports of entry. They are then released or transferred to different agencies, depending on their age, criminal history and on whether they are traveling as part of a family.
The Texas Democrat also denounced Republicans in Congress for not speaking out enough on the five deaths, accusing them of partaking in "tacit acceptance" of "inhumane" conditions endured by migrants.
Democratic California Rep. Raul Ruiz, a former emergency physician, echoed Castro's comments, agreeing that the deaths stem from a "systemic" problem in the immigration system. He said the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP, needs to "confront the reality that they will be the first in line" to encounter the unprecedented surge of Central American families heading towards the U.S.-Mexico border.
"We need to have a very keen look at overhauling the system," he said.
The group of lawmakers, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, also reiterated calls for thorough investigations into the deaths of the five children and said they will be introducing legislation to address CBP's humanitarian work in the coming days.
On Monday, Carlos Hernandez Vásquez became the fifth migrant child to die after being apprehended by U.S. authorities near the southern border during a period of six months. The 16-year-old boy, who crossed into the U.S. without his parents, died at the Border Patrol station in Weslaco, Texas, after a nurse concluded he had the flu, a CBP official said. His death has drawn further scrutiny because he spent a week in the custody of CBP, which usually transfers children to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) within 72 hours.
Last week, a 2.5-year-old who was apprehended near El Paso in April died while with his family. According to CBP, the child was hospitalized for an unspecified illness three days after he was detained. He was later released with his family — who were given a notice to appear before an immigration judge.
Late last month, 16-year-old Juan de León Gutiérrez, who was apprehended by border patrol agents near El Paso, died in the custody of HHS. According to the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry, Gutiérrez died from complications from an infection in his brain's frontal lobe.
Angel Canales and Graham Kates contributed to this report.