Unaccompanied minor dies after stay in Florida migration shelter

Cause of death is not yet known for 17-year-old Ángel Eduardo Maradiaga Espinoza, discovered unconscious in US custody.

Honduras's Foreign Minister Eduardo Enrique Reina arrives at the ninth Summit of the Americas
Honduras's Foreign Minister Eduardo Enrique Reina called for an ‘exhaustive investigation’ into the death of a 17-year-old Honduran in US custody [File: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters]

The United States government has confirmed that an unaccompanied minor from Honduras died in its custody earlier this week, amid heightened scrutiny on immigration as the controversial border-expulsion policy Title 42 expires.

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a statement on Friday acknowledging the death of 17-year-old Ángel Eduardo Maradiaga Espinoza on May 10. He had been discovered unconscious at a migrant shelter in Safety Harbor, Florida, and after resuscitation attempts at a local hospital, he was pronounced dead.

The 17-year-old’s passing is the first known death under the administration of Democratic President Joe Biden of a youth migrant or asylum seeker in government custody. An estimated six children died in custody under his predecessor, Republican Donald Trump, with several succumbing after falling ill and one after contracting sepsis.

In a statement about Maradiaga Espinoza’s death, the department said it was “deeply saddened by this tragic loss”. The statement explained that HHS was in contact with Maradiaga Espinoza’s family and that it was “reviewing all clinical details of this case, including all inpatient health care records”.

“A medical examiner investigation is underway,” it added. The cause of death was not immediately identified.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre briefly addressed the death during her Friday press briefing, acknowledging that the medical investigation was opened on May 10. “Being a mother and celebrating Mother’s Day on Sunday, it is very devastating news,” she said.

A young man leans his head down, as a woman holds her head in her hands.
Asylum seekers gather on May 12 on the Matamoros-Brownsville International Border bridge between the US and Mexico, in the wake of Title 42 expiring [Daniel Becerril/Reuters]

The remarks come a day after Honduran Foreign Minister Enrique Reina posted about the teenager’s death on Twitter, calling on the US government to “carry out an exhaustive investigation of the case” and to “apply the full weight of the law” if wrongdoing is found.

“This terrible event underscores the importance of working together on the bilateral migration agenda with regards to the situation of unaccompanied minors, to find solutions,” Reina wrote.

News of Maradiaga Espinoza’s death also follows the expiration of the Title 42 policy at the stroke of midnight on Friday morning. The much-criticised policy had been used by immigration authorities more than 2.8 million times to turn away migrants and asylum seekers in the name of public health.

But as the US’s COVID-19 emergency declaration ended on May 11, so too did Title 42, leaving the Biden administration to revert to its powers under Title 8 of the US Code, which governs immigration and nationality.

As part of its strategy to deter arrivals at the US-Mexico border, the Biden administration has rolled out new measures that would penalise, in some cases, irregular crossings with a five-year ban on re-entry and potential criminal prosecution.

As he campaigned for the presidency in the lead-up to the 2020 election, then-candidate Biden criticised the incumbent Trump for his treatment of children and families at the US-Mexico border. Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy at the border led to parents being separated from their children while their immigration proceedings progressed.

But Biden faced criticism of his own after assuming office, when he reopened a surge facility in 2021 for teenage arrivals at the US-Mexico border who did not have a parent or guardian with them.

That the facility had previously been open under Trump fuelled accusations that Biden was doubling down on his predecessor’s border policies, particularly as news reports emerged in 2021 of emergency intake sites holding thousands of children.

Federal law requires US Border Patrol to transfer any children who reach the border without their parents to the Department of Health and Human Services within three days for care in the agency’s long-term facilities.

From there, the department works to release individual children to a family member or sponsor, though it “is not a party to the child’s immigration proceedings”.

A girl in a beanie hat is seen from behind holding a doll in a shelter room
Asylum seeker and migrant children with their families at a shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on February 16 [File: Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters]

Unlike some other immigration detention sites, Housing and Human Services facilities for unaccompanied minors have beds and offer classroom education, recreation and mental and medical health services. But critics warn such facilities are not equipped or suitable for children over the long term.

The Department of Health and Human Services had 8,492 unaccompanied minors in its custody as of May 2. During the last fiscal year, 72 percent of the youth in the programme were over 14 years of age and 64 percent were boys.

Most came from Guatemala, at a rate of 47 percent, followed by Honduras at 29 percent and El Salvador at 13 percent.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies