ANTELOPE WELLS BORDER STATION, N.M — The U.S.-Mexico border here is an imaginary line in a wilderness of mountains, wind and sand. It’s 45 miles to the nearest town, Hachita, N.M., population 49.

This is where 7-year-old Jakelin Caal and her father, Nery, arrived on the night of Dec. 6 with 161 others who walked around U.S. border gates and surrendered to agents. Twenty-seven hours later, the child was dead.

Questions about how and why Caal died have fixed on the care she received in U.S. Border Patrol custody, and whether U.S. agents, or her father, deserve blame. The Department of Homeland Security has opened an internal investigation. Democratic lawmakers are threatening an inquiry of their own.

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Lost in the diverging accounts of what happened ­— whether she had water, or proper medical care — is a fundamental question about changing patterns of illegal migration to the United States. What was a 7-year-old girl doing here, in the middle of the desert, to begin with?

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Critics of the Trump administration have pointed to the government’s efforts to slow soaring numbers of Central America asylum seekers by limiting, or “metering,” how many are allowed to apply each day at U.S. ports of entry. 

But U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say their “queue management” system is operating at only a handful of the border’s busiest crossings, such as the San Diego area and El Paso. No capacity limits are in place at dozens of other entry points, they say. 

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Instead, according to U.S. officials and others with knowledge of what happened, Caal’s group appears to have been guided by a brazen start-up smuggling operation that in recent weeks has been whisking hundreds of rural Guatemalan families to remote areas of the U.S. border, depositing them at faraway U.S. outposts where their numbers overwhelm U.S. agents.

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On Wednesday, a group of 242 showed up along the Arizona border south of Tucson, including teenagers, expectant mothers and nine children sick with flu symptoms, according to CBP. And here on the high desert at an elevation of 4,500 feet, where just four agents were on duty when Caal and her father’s group of arrived, the Antelope Wells station has received 200 migrants or more on several nights in the past two weeks.

“It has a big impact on our operations,” Carla L. Provost, who leads the Border Patrol, told The Washington Post in an interview. “It takes time to deal with families. Whether processing them, or ensuring all of the care we have for them in our custody.” 

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“Our stations are not meant to house children and families,” she said. “They have not been constructed to deal with the population we’re coming into contact with now.”

At the Border Patrol station in Lordsburg, N.M., the closest to the Antelope Wells crossing, lawmakers who toured the facility Tuesday said they saw holding cells stuffed with nearly 500 migrants, including scores of children huddled on cement floors and wrapped in foil-like mylar sheets for warmth. 

Border Patrol officials say their facilities are meant to be temporary way stations, not detention facilities. But the surge of families also has swamped the ability of Health and Human Services (HHS) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to retrieve families, stranding them for days in primitive holding pens that lack shower facilities and kitchens.

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“We’re not meant to be doing this,” Provost said. “We need to get them into the custody of HHS and ICE, and to individuals who specialize in dealing with a population like this.”

With arrests along the border exceeding 2,000 per day and record numbers of family groups arriving, Guatemala last month replaced Mexico as the top source of migrants crossing the border illegally for the first time on record, according to CBP. The families say they are fleeing violence, hopelessness and extreme poverty.

Homeland Security officials have declared a “humanitarian crisis” and on Thursday announced a broad overhaul of U.S. asylum policies they said would bring the numbers “under control” by requiring applicants to wait in Mexico — possibly for months or years — while their claims are processed. Administration officials say unmerited asylum claims will dry up if migrants no longer view the application process as a way to gain entry and avoid deportation.

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The rules are expected to be implemented in the coming days, but they are likely to face legal challenges, and the Trump administration’s immigration moves have repeatedly been blocked or rejected by federal courts.

'It was just like a travel agency'

Caal died of dehydration, septic shock and liver failure, according to CBP, but the results of a full autopsy are not expected for several weeks. Her father, who remains in El Paso, has said through his attorneys that the child was not provided water and had been in good health until she began vomiting eight hours after they were taken into U.S. custody. When she reached the Lordsburg station 90 minutes later, her temperature was 105.9 and she was not breathing.

Less is known about what happened to Caal in the days before she arrived at the U.S. border.

According to a person familiar with Caal’s father’s story, Caal and her father left the family’s dirt-floor home in rural Guatemala at the beginning of December, just after the girl’s 7th birthday. In Coban, the nearest city, they joined other Mayan-speaking farmers signing up en masse for “dream” journeys to the United States.

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“It was just like a travel agency,” according to this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe an incident under investigation. 

The travel packages in Guatemala start at $15,000 for personalized five-star service that deliver customers to any destination in the United States. Caal opted for a mid-level offer, $7,000, plunging into debt. “It was express service,” said the person, who does not work for CBP. 

Like other smuggling offers in Guatemala, children pay only when they travel alone, without a parent or guardian. When they come with an adult, they travel free.

That has become the smugglers’ pitch in the months since President Trump imposed — and later repealed under intense public pressure — a separation system at the border to split parents from their children. Since then, word has spread across Central America that adults who arrive with children have the best chance at avoiding U.S. detention and deportation.

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Smugglers offer a two-for-one discount, knowing they need to take the families only to the U.S. border but not over it, according to Guatemalan officials and community leaders.

Once they reach the United States, court limits on the government’s ability to hold children in immigration jails and a lengthy backlog at U.S. courts ­— fueled by a fourfold increase in asylum claims since 2014 — mean that nearly all of the parents and children taken into U.S. custody are let go after a short stay at a Border Patrol station.

Kevin McAleenan, the top U.S. border security official, has said Caal and her father traveled across Mexico in “four or five days,” a journey that typically takes other Central American migrants weeks.

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Members of the group who arrived with the Caal family told CBP agents and others they traversed Mexico on a series of buses. “They’re essentially driving them right up the Antelope Wells area,” McAleenan said, “and the migrants are walking around a kind of barbed wire fence and walking directly up to the port of entry.”

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The crossing at Antelope Wells is among the most isolated along the entire 2,000-mile border, typically seeing about 30 vehicles a day during the six-hour window when it’s open, according to McAleenan, the CBP commissioner. 

One hypothesis, he said, is that the express-service smugglers have picked Antelope Wells to avoid paying transit fees to the cartels who dominate more-established routes through Mexico.

Another person with knowledge of the family’s story said Nery Caal told investigators he and his daughter were let off their bus Dec. 6 in the darkness, about an hour and a half walk south of the U.S. border crossing. Several other busloads of migrants arrived at the same time, apparently coordinated by the same smuggling network.

Caal said the smugglers treated his family well, providing meals and lodging each night, treating the bus passengers more like a tour group than human cargo, according to the person familiar with the father’s story.

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This person said the network’s ability to travel so openly along Mexican highways with busloads of Guatemalans is a sign of an advanced logistical operation that smooths its route with cash payoffs to police. “This is a transnational criminal group. There’s no doubt,” the person said.

CBP officials say they have assigned staff with emergency medical training to remote crossings, including the Antelope Wells station, where they have doubled the number of agents stationed there from four to eight in the expectation of more busloads.