Last week it was announced that on Thursday, December 6 a seven-year-old girl from Guatemala died after spending eight hours in U.S. border control custody. The young girl and her father had crossed the border illegally the previous week but the two handed themselves over to authorities on December 6. Border control officials arranged for her to be flown to El Paso Hospital, however she suffered a cardiac arrest thought to be triggered by severe dehydration, shock, fever and seizures. The border control agency now face pressing questions: did they realize the girl was severely ill when she arrived into custody? Was she given anything to eat or drink during the eight hours she spent there? Did they do enough to save her life?
Border officials have been quick to assert that the girl had not had anything to eat or drink for several days, suggesting that her condition was already severe upon arrival. A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security says that border control “always takes care of individuals in their custody” and in direct reference to the girl’s death they went on to say that “despite our best efforts… we were unable to stop this tragedy from occurring.” Furthermore, the spokesperson continues to beg parents ‘to not put themselves or their children at risk by attempting to enter illegally.’ In contrast, Advocacy Manager for ACLU Border Rights Centre, Cynthia Pompa, argues that situations like this represent “the worst possible outcome when people, including children, are held in inhumane conditions.” She claims that despite the decline in the number of migrants crossing the border illegally, the number of migrant deaths continue to rise suggesting that the onus is on border control to improve their treatment of illegal migrants.
At the centre of this story is a seven-year-old child who was exhausted from travelling miles through South America to flee her home, experienced significant stress crossing the border illegally and being held in custody, and ultimately died from the experience. Instead of finger-pointing, defensive statements and assigning blame to different parties involved, all should be working collaboratively to find a solution to stop this happening to other child migrants. I propose a three-part response. Firstly, the U.S. government must produce a better plan to help and process migrants arriving at the Mexico-U.S. border. In recent weeks, 7,500 migrants have arrived at the border and they are being forced to wait there for long periods resulting in many choosing to risk entering illegally. Secondly, the number of border control officials and the capacity of facilities should be increased to deal with this rise in numbers of migrants to process. The girl who died was part of a group of 163 migrants who entered illegally and handed themselves over to authorities. Processing a group of this size in one night is not a task the limited staff and temporary facilities are designed to deal with, making it harder to monitor and care for the safety of individuals within the group. Thirdly, more money must be invested into improving the quality as well as the capacity of these facilities; reports that have emerged of damp and cold conditions are unacceptable.
In recent weeks, multiple news stories relating to migrants at the Mexico-U.S. border have emerged, making this girl’s death part of a much bigger picture. In October a large migrant caravan of those fleeing from endemic gang violence and political corruption in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala arrived at the border. Trump’s draconian response to the caravan was to frame the migrants as criminals and to declare that anyone entering the U.S. illegally will be denied asylum and instead face immediate prosecution and deportation. In November, tear gas was used on migrants including children after they reportedly threw stones at border officials. Back in May it was reported that a toddler died after being released from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement Detention Centre in Texas. These inhumane stories cannot be allowed to continue.
If nothing changes, migrants will be forced to continue living in unacceptable conditions in temporary camps at the border, many will attempt a dangerous illegal entry into the U.S. and more deaths will be seen in detention facilities as the needs of those who are starved and dehydrated are not sufficiently met. This is totally unacceptable. This girl and her father should have been offered an alternative to illegal entry. When they handed themselves over, officials should have immediately ensured her safety rather than allowing her condition to deteriorate, ultimately leading to her death. But this situation will not change without the government intervening by addressing the current surge in migrants and investing in improving border facilities. The unnamed Guatemalan girl cannot be saved, but there are still many migrant children who need protecting.