A young migrant child, who should never have been placed in immigration detention, and who faced unimaginable conditions crossing into the United States, died last week hours after being detained by U.S. immigration authorities. The seven-year-old Guatemalan girl, identified as Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin, had not had food or water for days prior to her arrival, and reportedly died of dehydration. She has been detained in a small U.S. Border Patrol station in Texas, which at the time was processing at least 350 other asylum seekers – mostly families and children. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) believes that the hardline policies implemented by the Trump administration are contributing to the dangerous conditions at the U.S.-Mexico border which put asylum seekers’ lives at risk daily.
The following statement is attributable to Kathryn Hampton, PHR’s Asylum Network program officer:
“There is no excuse for a child to die of dehydration while in government custody. Her death is a tragic example of the dangerous consequences of allowing zero-tolerance enforcement to be the first priority for U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its operational agencies, and protection of health and human rights to be only secondary. Detention of children is never in their best interest and is a violation of their rights – in this case, resulting in a violation of a young girl’s very right to life.
“For years, human rights groups have warned the U.S. government that conditions in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) holding cells are inhumane and dangerously inadequate, and testimony this week by CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan to the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmed that conditions are not “compatible” for children and families. Further exacerbating the situation is the fact that most Border Patrol agents, who decide what medical treatment is administered to those they rescue, have very little or no medical training.
“This young girl’s death could very well have been prevented if the DHS implemented search and rescue activities along the border zone with the involvement of medical professionals. Decisions about the medical treatment needed for migrants and asylum seekers who are rescued in the desert should be made by a health professional with medical training, not by a law enforcement agent whose expertise and primary mission is focused on apprehension and arrest. The rights of patients and the rights of health care professionals to provide evidence-based medical care must be respected at all times.
“Her death must serve as a reminder to the U.S. administration and to all those who serve within immigration and border enforcement agencies that the United States constitution states that no individual may be deprived of the right to life without due process of law. All U.S. policies and practices should aim to ensure protection of life, regardless of migratory status. At each of its borders, the U.S. government must uphold mandatory obligations to relieve imminent danger to lives and safety as a first priority.
“CBP has the legal responsibility to inspect and process asylum seekers at U.S. ports of entry, and yet the agency is currently facing lawsuits for denying entry to asylum seekers for individual consideration of their case. The arbitrary blocking of ports of entry and the increasing militarization of the border zone have heightened the dangers encountered along the U.S.-Mexico border, where hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers die every year.”
PHR calls for a thorough investigation into all factors contributing to this child’s death, including details about the medical team’s actions and whether or not the child was transferred to the hospital immediately. Furthermore, PHR calls on Congress to review how DHS and the U.S. administration’s policies have contributed to the conditions which led to this child’s death. It is crucial that, in the ongoing discussions on the border situation in Congress, the discussion not be narrowed down to the building of a wall, but rather focus on ensuring CBP’s capacity to facilitate safe access for asylum seekers, who, according to U.S. law, have a right to seek asylum.
PHR also calls on the Trump administration to immediately end current practices that restrict access for asylum seekers at U.S. ports of entry and force them instead into more remote and impassable areas, putting them at greater risk. In addition, PHR calls on the Trump administration to end policies which keep asylum seekers in detention during processing, especially families and children. Mechanisms must immediately be put into place to ensure that deaths are prevented and to give asylum seekers the opportunity to have their asylum cases heard in a safe and dignified manner, prioritizing rights-respecting models of humane reception centers and alternatives to detention.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.