A Guatemalan toddler who spent several days in Border Patrol custody this spring died of complications related to “multiple intestinal and respiratory infectious diseases,” according to an El Paso County medical examiner’s office report issued Tuesday.
Wilmer Josue Ramirez Vasquez, who was 2½ , died May 14 after several weeks in an El Paso hospital.
The medical examiner’s office said tests detected influenza, parasites, E. coli bacteria — which can cause a food-borne illness producing severe cramping, diarrhea and vomiting — and other pathogens in the child’s system. He died weeks after U.S. Customs and Border Protection released him and his mother from a hospital.
The autopsy report comes a day after congressional Democrats made a tumultuous visit to Border Patrol facilities in El Paso and Clint, Tex., and said they differed with Homeland Security and demonstrators over conditions inside.
CBP apprehended Wilmer and his mother April 3 near the Paso del Norte International Bridge in El Paso, days after acting Homeland Security secretary Kevin McAleenan warned that the El Paso holding facilities and others along the border were at a “breaking point.”
Three days later, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said his mother informed agents the child was sick, and they took him to a local emergency room.
The medical examiner’s report said Wilmer arrived in “respiratory distress.” The child was then transferred to Providence Children’s Hospital in El Paso, where he died.
Lawyers supporting Wilmer’s family said the boy and his mother were “subjected to inhumane conditions” during their three days in Border Patrol custody, “including exposure to extreme temperatures, being forced to sleep outside on the ground, and other terrible conditions of confinement.”
They called for an independent investigation into why the boy was not taken to the hospital earlier.
“Wilmer’s family and supporting counsel remain committed to determining whether earlier medical intervention would have saved Wilmer’s life,” said lawyers Taylor Levy and Bridget Cambria. “The autopsy report indicates that this baby suffered from numerous intestinal and respiratory infections that, when compounded, led to his death.”
Bert Johannsen, an El Paso pediatrician who has treated hundreds of migrant children, said the autopsy report showed that Wilmer had several parasites, spread through fecal-oral contact, that are common in Central America but not in the United States.
The parasites are treatable if diagnosed and treated quickly, Johannsen said, but he questions whether CBP’s contract health-care workers are looking for them when screening children at the border.
“If you bring me a kid from El Paso who has diarrhea, I’m thinking viral gastroenteritis. But if I get a kid from Guatemala I have to start thinking these other bacteria, parasites, cryptosporidium,” said Johannsen, who volunteers to care for migrant children at El Paso’s Annunciation House shelters.
Initially, Guatemalan consular officials reported that Wilmer appeared to have developed a form of pneumonia, but that is not explicitly mentioned in the report.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus toured Border Patrol facilities in Texas on Monday after lawyers described “appalling” conditions in the Clint, Tex., facility, including hundreds of sick and dirty children. Democrats also reported crowding in the El Paso facility, where they said several hundred people are still detained.
On Tuesday, Homeland Security’s inspector general issued a new report warning about prolonged detentions and overflowing cells during the week of June 10 in the Rio Grande Valley in southwest Texas.
Several children and adults have died after being apprehended at the border, or attempting to cross, including four children last week.
The Trump administration has said it is grappling with record numbers of families and unaccompanied minors who are surrendering at the southern border and seeking asylum. Officials say the asylum claims are largely false and that people are traveling with children because they are likely to be released to await a deportation hearing.
President Trump has urged Congress to pass stricter asylum laws and close legal “loopholes” that prevent them from detaining families longer to process their cases and deport them.
Officials also have pressured Mexico into blocking migrants’ routes to the border. Homeland Security has said it expects a 30 percent drop in border apprehensions in June, a decline that they attributed to Mexico’s expanded crackdown on Central American migrants and the expansion of an experimental Trump administration program that requires asylum seekers to wait outside U.S. territory for their immigration court hearings.
The White House struck a deal with Mexico last month to increase enforcement after threatening to impose tariffs on that country’s goods.
Most people apprehended for crossing the border illegally are families or unaccompanied minors from Central America, and advocates say they are fleeing violence and severe poverty in search of a better life.
Children, many younger than 12, accounted for about 40 percent of apprehensions in May.
Department of Homeland Security officials expanded care for children after two young Guatemalan children died after being taken into custody in December. They require health screenings of all children and have sent medics and equipment to the border to quickly check new arrivals.
On Monday, Border Patrol officials said children receive food and care but said their facilities are not meant to hold anyone for long periods, especially children.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said one woman in a border facility said she was told by Border Patrol officers to drink out of a toilet. A Department of Homeland Security official, who was not authorized to discuss the visit and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said no Border Patrol agent would allow that, and there was water available.