More than a dozen members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus called for an independent investigation into the death last week of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl in U.S. custody, saying the absence of medically trained agents and a series of "disturbing systematic failures" prevented government officials from providing adequate care for the child.
The delegation of Democratic Congress members and representatives-elect retraced Jakelin Caal Maquin's final days, first with a tour of the Bounds Forward Operating Base in Antelope Wells, N.M., where the girl and her father were initially taken into custody, then the Lordsburg Border Patrol Station where she was treated by Emergency Medical Technicians.
"We learned today there were some very disturbing systematic failures in how the young girl's condition was handled," said Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
In a news conference with reporters Castro was critical of Customs and Border Protection protocols and described several instances in which he said officials could have intervened to save the child's life, including the 94-mile bus ride between the two facilities on which there was no medically trained professional on board.
"It's systemic failure like that that we have had a chance to uncover today," Castro said, adding that he plans to recommend policy changes to prevent such a "tragic death" from happening again.
The little girl made the arduous journey to the U.S. from Guatemala with her father, Nery Gilberto Caal. The two were part of a group of 163 migrants who turned themselves in to Border Patrol officers on Dec. 6 — three days after her seventh birthday — and taken to the Antelope Wells port of entry.
Upon arrival, the father, who speaks a Mayan language and Spanish, signed an English language waiver, declaring that the girl had no current health issues.
Some time later, the two boarded a bus for transfer to the Lordsburg Border Patrol Station. It was on the bus when the child began vomiting and her father first alerted officials to her illness.
By the time the bus arrived, an hour and a half later, the girl had stopped breathing and was twice resuscitated by Border Patrol agents who had been warned of her condition ahead of time by officials on the bus.
Eventually she was flown by helicopter to a hospital in El Paso, Texas, where she suffered another cardiac arrest. She died on Dec. 8 of suspected dehydration and shock.
Rep. Raul Ruiz, who is also a doctor in California, told reporters he was appalled by the lack of medical facilities at the Lordsburg station, noting it lacked proper medical equipment, including a medical bed.
"The child was laid on a flat table," Ruiz said.
Rep. Sylvia Garcia of Houston added that as of Tuesday afternoon, the table held two microwaves.
Ruiz said CBP should implement mandatory examinations of all incoming migrants, including vital-sign checks and a cursory physical exam of those who are vomiting.
He also questioned the decision to transfer Jakelin to a second facility and suggested she could have received more immediate attention at a hospital near Antelope Wells.
The delegation also blasted the Trump administration for demanding more funding to expand the border wall instead of ensuring overwhelmed border crossings and detention centers receive sufficient resources and basic supplies, including food, water and accommodations.
"The SPCA would not allow animals to be treated the way human beings are being treated at this facility," Rep. Al Green of Texas said.
According to several of the representatives, the Antelope Wells facility has no running water in the entire building because the water is contaminated. As a result, border agents and detained migrants are limited to two outdoor portable toilets.
In Lordsburg, detained adults and children are forced to use a toilet in a shared open space with no privacy, they said.
"There's a mass of humanity wrapped in foil laying on the floor," Castro added, touching on the overcrowding problem that many ports of entry in rural areas are grappling to address.
"The only reason this facility is still open as it is now is because these cameras can't get in ... If the public could see, they would treat human beings in a decent fashion," Green told reporters.