House panel told deaths of children in CBP custody were preventable

Jul 19, 2020, 6:15 AM
EL PASO, TX - MARCH 28: Migrants held in temporary fencing underneath the Paso Del Norte Bridge awa...
EL PASO, TX - MARCH 28: Migrants held in temporary fencing underneath the Paso Del Norte Bridge await processing on March 28, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has temporarily closed all highway checkpoints along the 268-mile stretch of border in the El Paso sector to try to stem a surge in illegal entry. (Photo by Christ Chavez/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christ Chavez/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – Medical experts told members of Congress Wednesday that the deaths of two children in Customs and Border Protection custody could have been prevented, but called the deaths “symptoms of a more extensive system that requires much improvement.”

The comments came during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing that looked at the December 2018 deaths of Jakelin Caal Maquín, 7, and Felipe Gómez Alonzo, 8, from sepsis and a severe bacterial infection.

The Department of Homeland Security determined the children died of natural causes. But witnesses said the children did not have to die.

“Death by natural causes does not mean that death was inevitable, and lack of misconduct or malfeasance, or even the great efforts several agents went to … does not absolve CBP as an agency of perpetuating systems that place children at risk for medical neglect,” said Dr. Fiona Danaher, an instructor in pediatrics at Harvard.

But Republicans on the committee were quick to jump to the defense of agents, who they said provided the best care they could.

Rep. Mark Green, R-Tennessee, who is also a physician, called Danaher’s testimony “blatantly partisan,” and said her claims that CBP facilities are unhygienic were false.

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, said the deaths of the children were tragic. But she said she does not understand how CBP is to blame for the deaths of migrants for whom they provided care after apprehending them as they tried to enter the country.

“We should start blaming the cartels, don’t you think?” she asked.

But Rep. Donald Payne, D-New Jersey, said it is the responsibility of the government, and its lawmakers, to do everything in their power to make sure nothing happens to migrant children.

“Now this is abominable,” Payne said during the hearing. “This is absolutely abominable what I’m listening to. Children died.”

Homeland Security Inspector General Joseph Cuffari testified that CBP officials who handled the children did not act negligently or inappropriately. But he also testified that those officials are not trained to recognize medical distress in children, which the medical witnesses said is necessary.

“The deaths of both these two children are the symptoms of a more extensive system that requires much improvement,” said Dr. Roger Mitchell, a clinical professor of pathology at George Washington University.

Danaher and Mitchell cited a number of recommendations for CBP, including a reduction in overcrowding, which Mitchell believes was a significant factor in Felipe’s death. They also called for medical professionals to be sent down to facilities in order to conduct health screenings and set up clinics for migrants.

That appeared to particularly upset Green, who claimed that the country currently faces a shortage of more than 14,494 doctors.

“Where in the world are we going to get doctors to put somebody in every single crossing site?” Green asked.

Mitchell said the recommendation is not aimed at taking away medical care from anyone, but to provide it to everyone.

“I think our job is to try to create opportunities where we can meet the goal of saving lives, wherever it exists,” he said.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, called it “shameful” to put blame on CBP and immigration officers, accusing others on the committee of simply following a trend of “demonizing law enforcement.”

But a Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday found that some CBP locations were not consistently conducting health interviews and medical assessments as required by medical directors.

As one example, Rebecca Gambler, who directs Homeland Security and Justice audits for the GAO, testified that CBP failed to document how it made its decision to not offer influenza vaccines to migrants in custody, per recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gambler also pointed out that CBP underreported the deaths of those in custody: GAO found 31 deaths from 2014 through 2019, while CBP only reported 20 deaths, the report said. And, the report noted, CBP misspent some of the $112 million in emergency funding it received in 2019 to provide care for migrants in custody, spending it instead on office supplies, dirt bikes and the canine program.

Jakelin and Felipe’s parents were not part of the virtual hearing, but they sent statements to Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, the committee chairman, to read before the hearing.

“I want justice. I want to know why my son didn’t receive medical care in time. I don’t want other children to go through the same thing,” Thompson read of the statement of Felipe’s father. “This is painful for me today, and it’ll be painful for the rest of my life. Every night I asked myself why my son didn’t receive medical attention in time. Felipe’s treatment was inhumane.”

Lifetime Windows & Doors

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Pass it along to the KTAR News team here.

Cronkite News

Activists in this file photo rally outside the Arizona Capitol in June, 2022, after the U.S. Suprem...
Haley Smilow | Cronkite News

Judges grill both sides in hearing about Arizona abortion laws

Arizona Court of Appeals judges quizzed attorneys Wednesday as they tried to figure out how, or if, they can square competing abortion laws.
1 day ago
Shannon O’Leary has been a civilian investigation specialist for the Mesa Police Department for n...
Salma Reyes and Nathan Collins | Cronkite News

National and Valley police departments hire more civilian investigators to fill vacancies

Hiring civilian investigators isn’t a new concept, but the movement recently gained steam as departments work to fill vacancies.
2 months ago
Ryan Knappenberger | Cronkite News

Angry at other states, Arizona towns, tribes rethink planned water cuts

Tribes and local governments in Arizona are increasingly talking about backing off earlier offers to give up some water.
3 months ago
(File photo by Nick Wicksman/Cronkite News)...
Ryan Knappenberger | Cronkite News

Arizona life expectancy fell by 2.5 years in 2020, fifth-largest decline in U.S.

Arizona life expectancy fell by 2.5 years in 2020, posting one of the steepest drops in a nation that saw the sharpest declines in lifespans since World War II.
3 months ago
A catalytic converter sits in the undercarriage of a vehicle at Courtesy Chevrolet in Phoenix on Ju...
Troy Hill | Cronkite News

What police and car dealers recommend to deter catalytic converter theft

The National Insurance Crime Bureau reports that the number of catalytic converter theft claims to insurance companies jumped from 3,389 in 2019 to 14,433 in 2020 – a 325% increase.
4 months ago
(Photo by Shealah Craighead/The White House)...
Tracy Abiaka I Cronkite News

Prescott Valley to foot public safety bill for former President Donald Trump’s rally

Prescott Valley officials expect crowds this week when former President Donald Trump holds a political rally there, but what they don’t expect is payment.
5 months ago

Sponsored Articles

Quantum Fiber

How high-speed fiber internet edges out cable for everyday use

In a world where technology drives so much of our daily lives, a lack of high-speed internet can be a major issue.
Quantum Fiber

Stream 4K and more with powerful, high-speed fiber internet

Picking which streaming services to subscribe to are difficult choices, and there is no room for internet that cannot handle increased demands.
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Ways to prevent clogged drains and what to do if you’re too late

While there are a variety of ways to prevent clogged drains, it's equally as important to know what to do when you're already too late.
House panel told deaths of children in CBP custody were preventable