“The only reason this facility is still open as it is now is because these cameras can’t get in,” Rep. Al Green (D-Tex.) told reporters who had to wait outside the station, nearly 90 miles north of the border along Interstate 10.
Green said he saw scores of children “stacked” in holding cells and huddled in foil blankets on concrete floors, alongside toilets lacking privacy screens. “If one of your cameras could get in there, the public would see what we have seen, and we should shut this down,” he said, “or we would restructure it so that we could treat human beings in a decent fashion.”
The delegation’s visit, and the ferocious criticism of U.S. border officials that followed, underscored the degree to which the death of Jakelin Caal has deepened the partisan feud over immigration as President Trump demands funding for a border wall.
Homeland Security officials insist U.S. agents did everything possible to save Jakelin and blame her father for bringing the girl on a dangerous journey to a desolate stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border. The child died at an El Paso hospital Dec. 8 of dehydration, shock and liver failure, according to Customs and Border Protection, which has cited statements from her father that the girl had no food or water for several days before reaching the border.
Lawmakers were not allowed to interview the agents who interacted with Jakelin.
Nery Caal, the girl’s father, has said he is grateful to the agents and emergency responders who attempted to save Jakelin’s life but disputed the government’s account of what happened. He is represented by attorneys in El Paso, who have said his daughter was in good health before being taken into Border Patrol custody.
The Democrats’ tour Tuesday was led Kevin McAleenan, CBP’s commissioner, who traveled from Washington to meet the group. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), chairman of the House Hispanic Caucus, said the commissioner explained CBP’s policies during their meeting, but Castro ended the day calling for McAleenan to resign. He cited the commissioner’s failure to notify lawmakers of Jakelin’s death.
Congress last year directed CBP to alert lawmakers within 24 hours if someone dies in the agency’s custody. The agency is reviewing its notification policies, officials have said.
Castro criticized the lack of medical care available to detained migrants and questioned what he said was the agency’s inability to respond with adequate resources to the large number of families with children coming over the border.
“Although Commissioner McAleenan was very willing to have all kinds of conversations about all kinds of policies and practices,” he said, “it’s clear that many of these facilities are under-resourced and there’s a lack of training and equipment, and all of that adds up to bad priorities or wrong priorities.”
But Castro had few remedies for the complex migration forces that brought a 7-year-old from rural Guatemala to a remote stretch of the U.S. border in the middle of the night. He and other members of the delegation did not describe the arrival of so many Central Americans as a problem, but rather likened the trend to the waves of Irish and Italian immigrants who came to the United States generations ago seeking better lives.
McAleenan and other Homeland Security officials have implored lawmakers to address what they say are gaps in U.S. immigration laws that encourage migrants to bring children with them to avoid detention and deportation.
After citing a fear of return to their home countries, migrant families are assigned a court date months or years away and freed from custody — a system Trump decries as “catch and release.” Smuggling groups in Guatemala have been offering discounts to those who bring children, knowing they need to escort them only to the edge of the U.S.-Mexico border but not across it.
McAleenan told reporters Tuesday that U.S. agents have seen unprecedented numbers of migrant families crossing at the Antelope Wells port of entry — where Jakelin and her father entered along with 161 others on Dec. 6 — one of the most remote outposts along the entire 2,000-mile divide. A group of 257 arrived there Dec. 15, and 239 others arrived Monday and Tuesday, McAleenan said.
The station was closed for the night when the group, including the Caals, arrived. There were only four agents on duty at the time, and no medical staff.
Jakelin and her father were in Border Patrol custody nearly eight hours when he told agents his daughter was ailing. The girl began vomiting at the outset of their 90-minute bus ride from Antelope Wells to Lordsburg. She had stopped breathing by the time they arrived, and her temperature was 105.9 degrees, according to CBP reports.
Castro criticized the lack of medical personnel on the bus ride.
CBP will increase the number of agents and medically trained personnel at the Antelope Wells and Lordsburg facilities, McAleenan said, adding, “This is a brand-new phenomenon that is challenging our resources.”
Smuggling organizations are using buses to bring the groups from Guatemala directly to Antelope Wells in “four or five days,” McAleenan said, possibly selecting the area because it is not dominated by drug cartels that charge “coyotes” the high fees assessed elsewhere.
The area is a solitary high-desert moonscape at 4,500 feet elevation, with snowy mountains rising on the Mexico side. The border gate is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. only, and it is one of the few places along the divide where there is no human settlement on either side, only a two-lane highway and a cluster of buildings circled by fences that stand bare in the cold wind.
“This is an area where we usually only see 30 vehicles a day,” McAleenan said. “Migrants are just walking around the low barbed-wire fence and walking right up” to border agents.
As elsewhere along the border in recent months, where U.S. agents have seen record numbers of families coming across, the groups do not attempt to evade capture but instead seek out agents to request humanitarian protection.
Is the Border Patrol prepared to address a “refugee situation?” asked Rep. J. Luis Correa (D-
Calif.), a member of the delegation who spoke to reporters outside the Antelope Wells crossing. “I’m trying to assess the facts.”
Jacqueline Alemany contributed to this report.