US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has ordered medical checks on every child in its custody after an eight-year-old boy from Guatemala died, marking the second death of a child in the agency’s care this month.
The death came during an ongoing dispute over border security and with a partial government shutdown under way over President Donald Trump‘s request for border wall funding.
The boy, identified by Guatemalan authorities as Felipe Gomez Alonzo, had been in CBP’s custody with his father, Agustin Gomez, since December 18. CBP said in a statement late Tuesday that an agent first noticed the boy had a cough and “glossy eyes” at about 9am Monday. He was eventually hospitalised twice and died just before midnight, the agency said.
CBP said in the statement that it needs the help of other government agencies to provide healthcare. The agency “is considering options for surge medical assistance” from the Coast Guard and may request help from the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
A CBP spokesman could not immediately answer how many children are currently in the agency’s custody. But with border crossings surging, CBP processes thousands of children – both alone and with their parents – every month.
Immigration advocates and human rights groups sharply criticised CBP in the wake of Felipe’s death. The body of seven-year-old Jakelin Caal, who died earlier this month, was buried in her home village in Guatemala’s San Antonio Secortez on Tuesday.
Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said the Trump administration’s “policies of cruelty toward migrants and asylum-seekers at the border must cease immediately before any more children are harmed.”
US Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said Wednesday that the agency has more than 1,500 emergency medical technicians on staff and that officers are taking dozens of sick children to hospitals every day.
“This is an extraordinarily rare occurrence,” McAleenan said to CBS This Morning of the recent child deaths. “It’s been more than a decade since we’ve had a child pass away anywhere in a CBP process, so this is just devastating for us.”
The White House referred questions about the latest case to the US Department of Homeland Security, CBP’s parent agency. CBP officers and the Border Patrol remain on the job despite the shutdown.
CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said in a statement that the child’s death was a “tragic loss.” The agency said it has notified the DHS inspector general.
Felipe and his father were detained by CBP for about a week, an unusually long time that the agency did not fully explain Tuesday.
CBP typically detains immigrants for no more than a few days when they cross the border before either releasing them or turning them over to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for longer-term detention.
Agency guidelines say immigrants generally shouldn’t be detained for more than 72 hours in CBP holding facilities, which are usually smaller and have fewer services than ICE detention centres.
CBP said it apprehended Felipe and his father on December 18 about five kilometres away from an official port of entry, the Paso del Norte bridge connecting El Paso and Juarez, Mexico. They were held at a processing centre for almost two days then taken to the El Paso Border Patrol station on Thursday.
Oscar Padilla, the Guatemalan consul in Phoenix, said he was told by the boy’s father in a telephone interview that the two had been travelling from their home in Nenton, a village about 450km from Guatemala City. They were planning to go to Johnson City, Tennessee.
CBP promised “an independent and thorough review of the circumstances,” and the Guatemalan foreign ministry called for an investigation “in accordance with due process.”
Democratic members of Congress and immigration advocates sharply criticised CBP’s handling of Jakelin Caal’s death and questioned whether border agents could have prevented it by spotting symptoms of distress or calling for an evacuation by air ambulance sooner.
CBP has said that it took several hours to transport Jakelin and her father from a remote Border Patrol facility to a larger station, where her temperature was measured at 105.7 degrees Fahrenheit (40.9 degrees Celsius). Emergency medical technicians had to revive her twice. She was ultimately flown to an El Paso hospital, where she died the next day.
Xochitl Torres Small, a Democrat who will represent the district starting in January, called for a thorough and transparent investigation into the children’s deaths and more medical resources along the border.
“This is inexcusable,” Torres Small said in a statement on Tuesday. “Instead of immediately acting to keep children and all of us safe along our border, this administration forced a government shutdown over a wall.”
Key parts of the US government shut down last week after Trump refused to back down on his request for more than five billion dollars in funding for his border wall, a demand Democrats fiercely oppose.
Since then, Trump and Democrats have traded blame over the shutdown. Negotiations are expected to continue this week, but Trump has said the partial closure could last a “very long time”.
The border wall was a key campaign promise of Trump, who was elected in 2016. He has implemented a “zero tolerance” policy at the border. Following public outcry earlier this year, Trump was forced to end his administration’s practice of separating children from their families at the border.