Watch CBSN Live

Deaths of migrant children in U.S. custody in 2018 were preventable, parents and doctors tell Congress

Customs and Border Protection not following health care guidelines
Customs and Border Protection not following h... 06:33

The deaths of two Guatemalan migrant children in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody in 2018 could have been prevented, two doctors told lawmakers during a House hearing Wednesday that also featured written testimony from parents of the minors.

Agustin Gómez Pérez, the father of Felipe Gómez Alonzo, who was 8 when he died, decried his son's treatment in a letter submitted to the House Homeland Security Committee and obtained by CBS News.

"I want justice, I want to know why my son didn't receive medical care in time," Gómez Pérez said in a statement prepared by the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. "I don't want other children to go through the same thing. This is painful for me today, and will be painful for the rest of my life. Every night I ask myself why my son didn't receive medical attention in time. Felipe's treatment was inhumane."

Nery Caal Cruz, the father of Jakelin Caal Maquin, who was 7 when she died, thanked the House panel for investigating his daughter's death.

"I would like to say what I have always believed. It is better to check on all children when they are sick and even if they are not sick. To speak up and say something even if you are afraid. The most important thing is to check on the children. So the thing that happened to my daughter doesn't happen to anyone ever again," Caal Cruz said in a statement issued by Aldea, the People's Justice Center.

Felipe and Jakelin died in U.S. government custody in December 2018 shortly after crossing the southern border and being apprehended by CBP officials. In May 2019, during the height of a months-long surge of U.S.-bound migration of Central American families and children, Carlos Hernández Vásquez, an unaccompanied teenager from Guatemala, also died in CBP custody.

Jakelin died of sepsis stemming from a bacterial infection. Felipe died from complications of an influenza infection, and Carlos died of the flu and complications from other infections, autopsies later found.

A person holds a picture of seven-year-old Jakelin Caal during her funeral in the village of San Antonio Secortez north of Guatemala City, on December 25, 2018. Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images

Their deaths provoked widespread outcry as border officials were struggling to cope with the large influx of migrants, most of whom could not be swiftly deported because of their age or intention to apply for asylum. Trump administration officials said the deaths illustrated the risks associated with the perilous trek to reach the U.S. southern border, and implored parents not to journey north with their children.

But on Wednesday, two doctors provided sworn testimony to Congress saying the deaths of Felipe and Jakelin could have been averted if CBP had the adequate infrastructure, resources and medical personnel in place.

"The deaths of these two children are a symptom of a more extensive system that requires much improvement. No system is perfect, but any system established by our government must have at its core the health and safety of all who come into contact with it," Dr. Roger A. Mitchell, the chief medical examiner in Washington, D.C., told lawmakers

Mitchell said licensed medical practitioners could have noticed Jakelin's elevated temperature during a screening and provided Felipe better care before and after his initial hospitalization. Dr. Fiona S. Danaher, a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital and an instructor at Harvard University, testified that earlier access to medical professionals, better health screenings and more robust medical training and resources for border officials could have saved the children's lives.

"Action must be taken now to apply the lessons learned from Jakelin and Felipe's untimely deaths, so that other children do not meet similarly painful and preventable fates while in custody of the U.S. government," she told lawmakers in her written testimony.

Republican members of the House Homeland Security Committee challenged the findings made by the doctors, focusing some of their comments on the "loopholes" they believe exist in immigration law that encourage migrants to journey to the U.S. Arizona Congresswoman Debbie Lesko said the blame for the deaths should lay, in part, with smugglers. Tennessee Representative Mark Green, a physician, called Danaher's testimony "blatantly partisan" and questioned the feasibility of the suggestions made by the doctors testifying before the committee.

"Where in the world are we going to get doctors to put somebody at every single crossing site?" Green asked.

Reached for comment, CBP said it faced an unprecedented surge of families and children in late 2018 that led to overcrowding and "difficult humanitarian conditions" at its holding facilities, which are designed for short-term detention.

"CBP takes its role in providing care and ensuring the health, safety, security, and welfare of each adult and child in its custody very seriously," the agency said in its statement. "CBP is committed to improving its care and custody of adults and children and requested emergency supplemental funds to support these operations along the southwest border in order to do so."

Late last year, the office of the inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security said investigations into the deaths of Jakelin and Felipe "found no misconduct or malfeasance" by border officials. Pressed by House Homeland Security Committee chairman Bennie Thompson, Joseph Cuffari, the DHS inspector general, conceded to the panel on Wednesday that his office did not hire any medical professionals to participate in the probes. 

The hearing came on the same day the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an investigative arm of Congress, issued a report denouncing several improper and potentially illegal practices at CBP, including inconsistent policies for the medical care of migrants. The government watchdog found that some CBP facilities did not have personnel to oversee medical screenings for children and other migrants.

CBP, according to the report, did not heed advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to offer flu vaccinations to migrant children, something the agency has previously said is logistically challenging. The watchdog also found that CBP needs to better report and track deaths in its custody, which the agency pledged to do.

Last month, the GAO found that some funds allocated by Congress last year for supplies and the care of migrant families and children were instead used by CBP to invest in its canine units and to buy printers, motorcycles, dirt bikes and other services in violation of appropriations law.

In a statement Wednesday, CBP said "only a very small percentage" of the funds were "inaccurately categorized."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.