U.S. lawmakers will travel to New Mexico in the coming week as they search for answers about how a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl died while in federal custody.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus said Friday that it would lead a delegation on Dec. 18 to Lordsburg Station in Lordsburg, N.M., the detention center Jakelin Caal Maquin was en route to, along with her father and scores of other migrants detained with them on the night of Dec. 6, after being taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Jakelin died in an El Paso, Texas, hospital 27 hours later of what medical officials preliminarily determined to be “sepsis shock,” according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Her official cause of death has not yet been released.
Symptoms of sepsis, or septic shock, can include extremes in body temperature, lethargy and restlessness. Official accounts indicate the girl received a quick assessment, as all people taken into custody do, before waiting for hours to be transported to the next detention facility with the group.
Minors transported first
Among the 163 people detained that night in a remote area of southern New Mexico, near the Antelope Wells Port of Entry, were 50 unaccompanied minors, who were transported to Lordsburg Station first, according to DHS.
It was en route to Lordsburg that Jakelin’s symptoms worsened, according to the government’s timeline of events.
“This is not who we are or who we want to be as a nation,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas, chairman-elect of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said in a statement Friday that included an open invitation to lawmakers to join the visit. “We must understand what led to this child’s death and how these stations are equipped to protect the health and safety of those seeking refuge at our borders.”
Jakelin crossed into the U.S. with her father, Nery Caal, 29, after traveling from Raxruha in Alta Verapaz, northern Guatemala. The father and daughter left home on Nov. 30.
Guatemalan media reported the girl’s mother and three siblings remain in Raxruha, citing an interview with Tekandi Paniagua, Guatemala’s consul in Del Rio, Texas.
Prior to the bus ride to Lordsburg, Caal signed a form indicating Jakelin did not have health issues. However, there may have been a language barrier.
CBP said border agents provided Spanish interpretation to fill out the English-language form. However, a Guatemalan official in Texas told Univision that Jakelin’s father is a native speaker of the Mayan language of Ke’chi, also called Q’eqchi’.
The Guatemalan press also reported on the potential language problem. A consular official told El Pais that Caal said he “doesn’t fully understand Spanish” and has received consular services in Q’eqchi’.
It can be challenging for U.S. personnel to find Q’eqchi’ interpreters even during normal business hours, a DHS staffer with experience interviewing Guatemalan migrants told VOA on condition of anonymity.
“It’s a difficult thing,” the staffer said, describing the need to schedule “relay interviews” with a Q’eqchi’ interpreter who interprets to Spanish, then a Spanish interpreter who speaks in English to the U.S. government employee, a process that often involved a full 24 hours of planning.
More questions than answers
The girl’s death on Dec. 8 was not initially made public by CBP or DHS. The Washington Post first reported the story on Dec. 13.
Since then, the agencies have made several public comments and provided a timeline about the events leading to Jakelin’s death. In a Facebook statement, DHS related that according to the girl’s father, she “had not been able to consume water or food for days” before her death.
The Office of the Inspector General at DHS announced Friday that it would be investigating Jakelin’s death.
U.S. House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi said Friday that in addition to the DHS inspector general’s investigation, “Congress will also investigate this horrific tragedy to ensure the safety and security of every child.”
Additionally, a letter sent Friday by six members of Congress, including New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, to DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan and acting DHS Inspector General John V. Kelly raised the issue of why CBP did not report the death of an individual in its custody within 24 hours as required.
The lawmakers requested, in part, details and a full investigation into Jakelin’s death, as well as a meeting with the commissioner.
McAleenan testified before Congress this week but made no mention of the death.