Originally Published in The New York Times
The Associated Press - July 15, 2020
HOUSTON — A government auditor did not employ medical professionals when his office cleared U.S. border agents of wrongdoing in the deaths of two Guatemalan children, the auditor said Wednesday.
Joseph Cuffari, the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general, testified before the House Homeland Security Committee regarding the deaths of 7-year-old Jakelin Caal and 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo. Both children died in December 2018 after being apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol.
Jakelin died of a bacterial infection that quickly led to sepsis and organ failure. Felipe contracted the flu, which led to a rapid, progressive infection.
In both cases, the children were in Border Patrol custody, sick for hours, before they were taken to hospitals. Advocates have accused the Border Patrol of negligence and say the Trump administration has not done enough to protect immigrant families. The agency has defended the care given to migrants, including numerous rescues of people trying to cross the border, and said agents took both children to the hospital as quickly as they could.
Jakelin's father signed an English-language form shortly after they were apprehended saying she was in good health, but his native language is the indigenous Q’eqchi’.
Their deaths occurred when many Border Patrol facilities were packed with parents and children during a surge in border crossings. Border facilities are currently close to empty during the coronavirus pandemic because the U.S. government is expelling almost all people crossing the border, including at least 2,000 children.
Cuffari's office “found no misconduct or malfeasance by DHS personnel" in either death. Questioned by U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who chairs the committee, he acknowledged that his office had not contracted any medical personnel for the reviews, but that it would do so in the future.
Jakelin and Felipe are two of at least six immigrant children known to have died after being apprehended by government agents since August 2018. A third child, 16-year-old Carlos Hernandez Vasquez, also died after contracting the flu and was found to have been lying unresponsive in a Border Patrol cell for hours before his death.
Their deaths sparked national outrage and multiple investigations. U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued new directives on medical care and notifying Congress and the public about deaths.
But months after they died, reports emerged of children locked in cells at a Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, with inadequate food, water and sanitation. CBP at the time said it was in “crisis” and needed funding.
Congress then passed $4.6 billion in emergency funding to improve conditions at the border. The Government Accountability Office found last month that CBP misspent some money intended for medical care on things like all-terrain vehicles, boats, and a police dog program.
A new GAO report released Wednesday found that CBP had not “consistently implemented enhanced medical care policies and procedures” or have reliable information on deaths or serious injuries in its custody.
In a statement, CBP said a “very small percentage” of spending was incorrectly categorized and that it was fixing any mistakes.
“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.