US immigration

Why did 7-year-old migrant girl Jakelin Caal die in US custody?

  • Family of migrant girl disputes official story on her death
  • US officials said she had not been given food or water for days
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 December, 2018, 1:16pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 December, 2018, 9:31pm

The family of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died in US Border Patrol custody has disputed an account from US officials who said she had not been given food or water for days.

News of the child’s death, and suggestions that border officials ignored or overlooked a medical crisis, added to criticism from migrant advocates and congressional Democrats of US President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policies.

In a statement released by lawyers, the parents of Jakelin Caal said the girl had been given food and water and appeared to be in good health as she travelled through Mexico with her father, 29-year-old Nery Gilberto Caal Cuz.

The family added that Jakelin had not been travelling through the desert for days before she was taken into custody.

Tekandi Paniagua, the Guatemalan consul in Del Rio, Texas, said that he spoke with the Jakelin’s father.

The consul said Nery Caal told him the group they were travelling with was dropped off in Mexico about a 90-minute walk from the border.

The family’s statement was released Saturday during a news conference in El Paso, Texas, at an immigrant shelter where Jakelin’s father was staying. Her family did not attend and has asked for privacy.

Jakelin and her father were seeking asylum in the US and were among a large group of migrants arrested December 6 near a remote border crossing in New Mexico.

Hours later they were placed on a bus to the nearest Border Patrol station, but Jakelin began vomiting and eventually stopped breathing. She later died at a Texas hospital.

Border Patrol officials on Friday said agents did everything they could to save the girl but that she had not had food or water for days.

They added that an initial screening showed no evidence of health problems, and that her father had signed a form indicating she was in good health.

But the family took issue with that form, which was in English, a language her father doesn’t speak or read. He communicated with border agents in Spanish but he primarily speaks the Mayan Q’eqchi’ language.

“It is unacceptable for any government agency to have persons in custody sign documents in a language that they clearly do not understand,” the statement said.

Jakelin’s family is urging authorities to conduct an “objective and thorough” investigation into the death and to determine whether officials met standards for the arrest and custody of children.

A cause of death has not yet been released.

The El Paso County medical examiner has conducted an autopsy on the girl, but the results will not be made available for up to two weeks

The US Department of Homeland Security’s office of inspector general vowed to conduct an inquiry. Democrats on Capitol Hill want that probe to examine why Congress was not informed of the incident within 24 hours, as they said is required of any death in US Customs and Border Protection custody.

In a Friday tweet, Hillary Clinton suggested that the incident was symbolic of the “humanitarian crisis” taking place at the border.

Family members in Guatemala said Caal decided to migrate with his favourite child to earn money he could send back home.

Jakelin’s mother and three siblings remained in San Antonio Secortez, a village of about 420 inhabitants.

Additional reporting by Reuters and The Washington Post