A migrant who is part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States cries next to the border wall as she tries to cross it illegally, in Tijuana, Mexico, on Friday. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)
Opinion writer

The Post reported this week:

A 7-year-old girl from Guatemala died of dehydration and shock after she was taken into Border Patrol custody last week for crossing from Mexico into the United States illegally with her father and a large group of migrants along a remote span of New Mexico desert, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Thursday. . . .

According to CBP records, the girl and her father were taken into custody about 10 p.m. Dec. 6 south of Lordsburg, N.M., as part of a group of 163 people who approached U.S. agents to turn themselves in.

More than eight hours later, the child began having seizures at 6:25 a.m., CBP records show. Emergency responders, who arrived soon after, measured her body temperature at 105.7 degrees, and according to a statement from CBP, she “reportedly had not eaten or consumed water for several days.”

The Department of Homeland Security’s statement in response to reports of the child’s death was a moral and legal disgrace:

Traveling north through Mexico illegally in an attempt to reach the United States, is extremely dangerous. Drug cartels, human smugglers and the elements pose deadly risks to anyone who seeks to cross our border illegally. Border Patrol always takes care of individuals in their custody and does everything in their power to keep people safe. Every year the Border Patrol saves hundreds of people who are overcome by the elements between our ports of entry. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts and the best efforts of the medical team treating the child, we were unable to stop this tragedy from occurring.

“Once again, we are begging parents to not put themselves or their children at risk attempting to enter illegally. Please present yourselves at a port of entry and seek to enter legally and safely.”

For starters, the federal government is responsible for the health and welfare of anyone it detains — whether it is a criminal in a prison, a child in its foster-care system or families detained at the border. Regardless of what the children’s parents did or did not do, the United States has an obligation to the children the moment it detains them. Not to give food and water, or to check the health of those it has in custody, is inexcusable. Blaming the parents as Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen did (“This is just a very sad example of the dangers of this journey. This family chose to cross illegally”) reflects her legal and moral obtuseness. In our care, the child’s welfare became our responsibility.

“This tragedy represents the worst possible outcome when people, including children, are held in inhumane conditions,” the ACLU’s Border Rights Center said in a statement. “Lack of accountability, and a culture of cruelty within CBP have exacerbated policies that lead to migrant deaths." The ACLU continued, "In 2017, migrant deaths increased even as the number of border crossings dramatically decreased. When the Trump administration pushes for the militarization of the border, including more border wall construction, they are driving people fleeing violence into the deadliest desert regions.” The statement pointed out that the incident wasn’t reported for a week. “We call for a rigorous investigation into how this tragedy happened and serious reforms to prevent future deaths,” the statement concluded.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a progressive pro-immigration group, also responded. Sharry pointed out that a “tragic and preventable death of an innocent seven-year old girl should not be seen as a mistake made in an otherwise humane system, but rather a deliberately cruel and dehumanizing system that has produced yet another death.” His statement asserted that CBP’s holding facilities are characterized by “freezing temperatures, no beds, lights left on, no showers, not enough toilets or toilet paper, filthy conditions, horrible smell, inedible food and not enough clean water to drink, and [are] run by insulting and abusive agents." The system the administration has set up is seemingly designed to inflict the maximum amount of suffering in a failed attempt to deter migrants:

[The] strategy has many components: tell those who want asylum to request it at ports of entry while making it nearly impossible to request asylum at ports of entry; prosecute those who present themselves to Border Patrol agents between ports of entry for “illegal entry;” separate families in numbers large (now halted by a federal judge) and small (under the flimsy pretext of protecting children from “criminal family members”); detain as long as possible those who seek asylum; lock up minors who arrive unaccompanied minors and scare away their U.S.-residing parents and relatives who want to sponsor them by threatening to arrest and detain those who come forward; and gut asylum standards by unilaterally changing the bases for deciding cases, pressuring trained Asylum Officers to reduce their high rates of deeming Central Americans as having a credible fear of return, and bullying Immigration Judges to deny cases when finally adjudicated.

Now if a pregnant migrant asserts her right to seek an abortion, this administration will go to any lengths to protect the life of the unborn child; for the already-born minors (and adults) in its custody, however, the administration cannot be bothered to ensure humane and safe conditions.

Under the Republican-majority House and Senate, rigorous oversight of the Department of Homeland Security and legislation to try to ameliorate these conditions were all but impossible. With a Democratic-majority House, this will no longer be the case. The House Judiciary Committee will be headed by Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) in the new Congress. He left no doubt as to his intention to get to the bottom of the tragedy and the conditions that allowed this to occur:

On Friday, Nadler and Democrats who will head House Judiciary subcommittees sent a letter to the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security requesting the IG “initiate an investigation into this incident, as well as CBP policies or practices that may have contributed to the child’s death [and] CBP’s failure to timely notify Congress of this incident.” The letter told the IG, “It is hard to overstate our frustration with the fact that we learned of this incident through media reports one week after the incident occurred. It is clear that CBP failed to follow the reporting requirements laid out in last year’s omnibus appropriations bill until after the news of this death was already public.”

With adequate border security and staffing, a sufficient number of immigration judges deployed to handle the caseload, reversal of the administration’s deliberately cruel policies, and effective diplomacy with and provision of assistance to the countries from which these people are fleeing for their lives, the current, intolerable situation should improve.

It’s a cruel irony that Trump has portrayed refugees as a threat to Americans. In fact, the reverse is true.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Instead of tear gas and melees, this is what should be done at the border

Laura Bush: Separating children from their parents at the border ‘breaks my heart’

Ali Noorani: How we can follow our laws at the border — and still be a nation of grace

Letters to the Editor: Build that wall?

Greg Sargent: Trump: Democrats are the reason I can’t have my wall! Republicans: Well, actually …