Word spread through the impoverished village in the western highlands of Guatemala: Migrants traveling with a child are likely to make it past the Border Patrol and into the United States.
Agustin Gomez Perez was 47 and in debt, and that path would only deepen his obligations. But like others in the rural farming village of Yalambojoch, he decided that traveling with a child was the only way out.
He and his wife chose 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo for the journey because he was one of three sons, and the couple had only one daughter together.
Felipe was eager to go, an older stepsister who also lived with them said in a phone interview Thursday. He was excited to attend school, find a new home and buy clothes for his siblings. He also wanted a new bicycle, like a boy in the village purchased with money sent after his father went to work in the United States.
“It was his dream,” said the sister, Catarina Gomez Lucas, 21.
Father and son ended up in a holding cell in Alamogordo, N.M., on Christmas Eve after days of being shuttled from one Border Patrol facility to another. They expected that the U.S. government was about to release them to await a deportation hearing, just as the smugglers had promised.
Instead, the little boy vomited and spiked a fever. He died at a New Mexico hospital, the second child fatality in U.S. immigration custody in under a month.
The deaths have triggered finger-pointing between the White House and Democrats over border security, and allegations that the Trump administration is endangering migrant children by detaining them for days in cells meant as way stations for adults.
Federal officials say they must screen migrants before releasing them, and have been overwhelmed by a record surge of adults crossing with children.
The Department of Homeland Security has launched investigations of the deaths of Felipe and 7-year-old Jakelin Caal, expanded health screenings for detained children and asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to examine why more migrants appear to be getting sick.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is traveling to El Paso and Yuma on Friday and Saturday to inspect border stations.
Late Thursday, the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator said an autopsy showed Felipe tested positive for influenza B. The cause of death is still being determined through additional laboratory testing, the office said.
“We appreciate the public’s understanding that this investigation must not be rushed to ensure thorough observations and accurate conclusions about how this child died. We extend our condolences to his family and loved ones,” the office said in a statement.
The El Paso Medical Examiner’s office has not yet released information about the investigation into Jakelin’s death.
Late Thursday, leading House Democrats called on DHS to preserve “all evidence” related to the deaths, and vowed to conduct hearings after Democrats take control of the House next week.
In November, U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended 25,172 family members, the highest number recorded, as well as 5,283 “unaccompanied minors.”
Smugglers often charge less than half the price if a child goes along, knowing that migrants can turn themselves in to border agents and will soon be released.
In villages such as Felipe’s, the price can be hard to resist.
The boy lived in a one-room house in a rural farming area with Gomez Perez and his second wife, Catarina Alonzo, 32, who speaks only the Mayan language Chuj.
Felipe was a smart and inquisitive boy who loved to read, count, and play soccer, his sister said. His father was a farmworker who earned less than $5 a day. Felipe sometimes pulled on his rubber boots and joined him in the fields planting corn and beans.
Gomez Perez was in debt from a long-unpaid electric bill and other expenses. Add in the smuggler’s fee, and he owed more than $6,500. He expected that he’d pay it off after working in the United States.
He left Guatemala with Felipe about two weeks ago and reported that they were fine on the journey through Mexico, Gomez Lucas said. Homeland Security officials also said Felipe initially appeared to be well. But on the sixth day in custody, he fell ill.
His sister said her father told her in phone calls from immigration custody that Felipe had been playing that morning when he said his tummy hurt.
“Don’t get sick on me,” she said her father told him gently. “We have just a few days left.”
“I’m not going to die, papa,” she said Felipe told him.
“My father doesn’t know what happened,” Gomez Lucas said. “He was well. He was happy. He was playing.”
Border Patrol officials took Felipe to the hospital. His fever was 103 degrees. Doctors placed him under observation for 90 minutes, gave him ibuprofen and the antibiotic amoxicillin, and sent him back to federal custody.
“The doctor said his health was okay,” she said her father told her.
They’d been held twice the amount of time the agency’s detention standards recommended.
About 7 p.m., while they were being held at a highway checkpoint on Route 70, Felipe vomited, officials said. U.S. officials said his father declined medical assistance because the child had been feeling better.
Gomez Lucas said her father told her Felipe had vomited blood and it trickled out of his nose, which DHS wouldn’t confirm. She said their father barely has a grade school education and speaks Chuj better than Spanish.
At 10 p.m., Homeland Security officials said, Felipe appeared lethargic and nauseated, so the agents took him back to the hospital.
Gomez Lucas said her father told her Felipe suddenly worsened. His “stomach hurt, that he couldn’t breathe.”
“My father started to cry,” she said, recalling his words. “It can’t be. Don’t abandon me here. We have a dream to fulfill.”
He was not allowed to inform the family of the boy’s death until Dec. 26, Gomez Lucas said. DHS denied that account.
She said the family would ask the U.S. government for two things: Return Felipe’s body so that they can bury him in Guatemala, and let his father work in the United States so that “my brother’s death won’t be in vain.”
“All we want are those things,” she said. “We have nothing.”