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Migrant Girl Dies From Shock, Dehydration While In Border Patrol Custody


In New Mexico last week, a 7-year-old girl and her father were taken into custody at the U.S.-Mexico border. They'd crossed into this country illegally. More than eight hours later, the girl was dead. Immigrant advocates have seized on the case, saying migrants are being held in deplorable conditions. But the Border Patrol says this case illustrates why parents should not make the dangerous trek to the U.S. in the first place. NPR's John Burnett joins us now from El Paso, Texas. Hey there, John.


CORNISH: So far, what have you learned about how this child died?

BURNETT: Well, today a Border Patrol official said that the night of December 6, a 7-year-old migrant girl from Guatemala was taken into custody with a large group of 163 migrants at a remote border patrol station in Antelope Wells, N.M. He said the girl was with her father, and initially he did not tell agents that his daughter was ill. But by the time a bus picked them up several hours later to take them to a larger border patrol station in the town of Lordsburg, N.M., her dad says she was sick and vomiting.

When the bus arrived to Lordsburg, she wasn't breathing. An agent trained in emergency medicine revived her, and she reportedly had a fever of 105.7 degrees, so they called in an air ambulance that rushed her to a children's hospital here in El Paso. She went into cardiac arrest. They revived her, and she died the morning of December 8 of liver failure. And the Guatemalan consul has identified the child as Jakelin Caal.

CORNISH: What has Border Patrol had to say? How have they responded to this death?

BURNETT: Well, the inspector general of Customs and Border Protection will investigate to see if all the agents handled this incident properly. But most of what the Border Patrol says is a plea to migrant parents, don't bring your young children on this arduous and dangerous journey up from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Immigrant rights groups are already crying foul. The ACLU in Texas says this is the worst possible outcome when people, including children, are held in inhumane conditions. CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan testified before Congress earlier this week, and he said the Border Patrol stations were basically set up to do intake for single adult males and not all of these families who are coming across now. He said that they're holding cells are incompatible with the needs of families traveling with these small kids.

CORNISH: You've been reporting on the large numbers of Central American migrants who are arriving at the Southwest border. What more can you tell us about these families?

BURNETT: Well, I was actually in El Paso covering the big tent shelter in Tornillo where 2,800 unaccompanied minors are being held. We know that children traveling without their parents are coming across in great numbers. But even more family units are crossing the border. The numbers of these migrant mothers and fathers traveling with their children are at an all-time high. CBP figures in November - more than 25,000 individual family members were taken into custody.

So border patrol stations are overwhelmed. Anecdotally, you can see this surge of migrant families down here on the border, Audie. I was on the El Paso-Juarez bridge yesterday, and I met four mothers from Guatemala. Each had a toddler with them, and all the kids had colds, and they were dirty. So they're not always in good condition when they arrive here at the U.S.-Mexico border.

CORNISH: But remind us. What is the current policy now - because obviously after the big controversy over separating children from their parents, there was supposed to be a system in place. What is it?

BURNETT: Well, since that policy of family separation was suspended, some parents are again bringing their children because they know under the current U.S. immigration policy families will be processed, then most of them will be released to await their day in immigration court. This is what the Trump administration has been on record - is denouncing what he calls catch and release. But remember; these migrant families say they're fleeing gang violence and extortion and poverty and food insecurity. And human rights advocates point out they have every right to come to the U.S. border and ask for asylum regardless how much trouble it causes for border agents.

CORNISH: That's NPR's John Burnett, who will be following this story. John, thanks so much.

BURNETT: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.