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After 2nd child dies in U.S. custody, Nielsen expands medical screenings, will head to border

After the death of a second migrant child in border detention, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced Dec. 26 it is developing policy changes. (Video: Reuters)

The Border Patrol checkpoint outside Alamogordo, N.M., sits on the edge of a forbidding desert of white gypsum sands so remote that the Defense Department conducts missile testing in the area.

Like most Border Patrol stations, the checkpoint is not set up to house children. But 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo and his father were there on Christmas Eve, and the boy was growing sicker.

The pair had been caught entering the United States illegally Dec. 18, a few miles west of a legal border crossing in El Paso. Border agents say they were given hot food, juice, snacks and water. For the most part, Felipe seemed fine as agents moved him and his father from one station to another, including late at night, as holding cells filled up.

But then the boy started to cough, his eyes glassy. He was taken to the hospital, where his fever spiked to 103 degrees. After doses of antibiotics and ibuprofen, the hospital released him to Customs and Border Protection.

By the time Felipe and his father were brought to the highway checkpoint near the White Sands National Monument, they had been in custody for six days — double the 72 hours Border Patrol standards recommend.

Over the next several hours, the boy vomited and looked sluggish. He lost consciousness on the way back to the Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center in Alamogordo, where he became the second migrant child to die in federal custody this month. On Dec. 8, Jakelin Caal, 7, died of dehydration and shock at an El Paso hospital about 27 hours after she and her father were taken into custody at a remote border crossing.

The deaths have shaken Border Patrol agents, migrants and advocates and ignited fresh concerns that a political impasse over border security is endangering children. Federal officials called the deaths a tragedy, noting that until this month no child had died in border custody for more than a decade, and said the Department of Homeland Security is investigating. Six adults died in CBP custody in 2018, officials said.

House Democrats, poised to take control of Congress next month, said they plan to examine the deaths and the conditions under which young migrants are being held as President Trump tries to stanch the flow of asylum-seeking families across the border. In a statement, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) called on Congress to “ask serious questions about what happened and who bears responsibility.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called Felipe’s death “unconscionable,” and Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), the incoming chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said it was indicative of a “systemic crisis” within the CBP. Castro identified the boy Tuesday as Felipe Alonzo Gomez, but a Guatemalan official said Wednesday that his full name was Felipe Gomez Alonzo. Another official said he was from a village in the municipality of Nentón, in the department of Huehuetenango.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen deployed teams from the U.S. Coast Guard’s medical corps to the southern border to ensure that migrant children being held by the government receive double health screenings. She said Wednesday she has asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate the source of what officials called an increase in sick migrants taken into custody. Dozens have been taken to hospitals with flulike and other symptoms in recent days, officials said, raising the question of whether illness may be spreading in migrant shelters in Mexico.

Nielsen will travel to the border this week to see the screenings and conditions at Border Patrol stations. She urged Congress to provide additional funding to handle an influx of immigrant families, who are overwhelming temporary holding cells that were designed to contain single men. And she called on would-be migrants not to attempt to cross the border, especially with their children.

“I once again ask — beg — parents to not place their children at risk by taking a dangerous journey north,” she said in a statement, urging migrants to seek refuge in Mexico.

Lawyers for immigrant children said Congress never intended for them to be held for days in the austere Border Patrol facilities, where they often have mats and foil blankets to sleep on and minimal provisions.

Heidi Altman, policy director at the National Immigrant Justice Center, said DHS should have sent medical professionals and others to the border as soon as it became clear more migrant families were crossing. She faulted the Trump administration for focusing instead on limiting options for asylum and a fight for border wall funding that has shut down parts of the federal government.

“The choices that are made at the top and the bottom are all coming together to create this tragedy,” Altman said.

Leah Chavla, a policy adviser at the Women’s Refugee Commission, said the government should hire child-welfare professionals to deal with young migrants. “Someone there who has the credentials, who knows how to work with children who have been survivors of trauma and other circumstances,” Chavla said, adding that Border Patrol agents don’t have that sort of specialized training.

CBP detained 25,172 members of “family units” in November, the highest number ever recorded, as well as 5,283 “unaccompanied minors.” Together, the two groups accounted for nearly 60 percent of all border arrests last month.

Nielsen said migrant parents are bringing young children with them because they know DHS cannot process their claims quickly and will have to release them to await immigration proceedings inside the United States.

CBP’s own guidelines call for all migrants to be transferred from its custody to more permanent facilities within 72 hours whenever possible. And federal court orders have said migrant children cannot be detained over 20 days in family detention centers run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Agents are “supposed to take immediate steps to release a child,” said Carlos Holguin, general counsel for the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law, which represents migrant children in the lawsuit known as the Flores case that imposed those legal limits.

“The government has an obligation to care for them and not let them die in federal custody,” Holguin said. “The longer the custody extends, the greater the government’s responsibility.”

The Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, which had custody of both children who died, on Tuesday ordered immediate medical assessments on all 700 children it is holding, according to communications with health-care professionals obtained by The Washington Post. Officials said Wednesday that most were completed and they were focusing especially on children under age 10.

Emergency medical technicians at each station in the sector were told to do initial assessments. Children who appear to be ill or injured are to be taken to a hospital for further assessment. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), who represents the area, said he was told by a hospital administrator on Wednesday that about 100 children were taken to hospitals but only a few were admitted.

The state medical examiner’s office declined to provide information on Felipe’s death. Autopsy reports for him and Jakelin haven’t been released. New Mexico Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), a former chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said she will push for more state oversight of federal immigration detention centers when she takes office next week, succeeding Republican Susana Martinez.

“And I think we may take a hard look at criminal and civil liability for individuals working in New Mexico who have failed to adequately protect children in this population,” she said.

The Trump administration is challenging a California law passed earlier this year giving state officials the power to inspect federal immigration detention facilities.

The Guatemalan Foreign Ministry this week called on the U.S. government to investigate the deaths and release the autopsy reports.

Moore reported from El Paso. Felicia Sonmez in Washington contributed to this report.