Death of Young Migrant Within Federal Custody Sparks Congressional Attention


Amanda Ruzumna, Contributor

With the increasing number of deaths and abuse migrants face when in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security, House Democrats are pressing immigration officials for an explanation.

Last December, the House oversight panel demanded documents from the Department of Homeland Security in order to take a closer look into the deaths and treatment of migrants, especially adolescents. Although there have been multiple deaths of migrants while in federal custody, the death of Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, a 16 year-old detainee from Guatemala, sparked controversy over custody conditions and led to a deeper investigation into the tragedies.

Vasquez was found dead on May 20th, 2019 lying facedown on the floor of his cell after not moving for many hours. Government records and Customs and Border Protection officials have not provided specific details about the death, stating that the death was from natural causes and claiming that Vasquez had been found dead by a federal agent during a welfare check. However, with more detailed records and a video obtained by ProPublica in early December, the tragedy and brutality of Vasquez’s death was fully revealed, and it was also discovered that he had been found by his cellmate. This new information appeared to contradict the government’s original description of the death and raised many questions about the health improvements federal officials had made.

Vasquez arrived in the United States six days prior to his death and was held at a federal processing center in McAllen, Texas for those days, even though it is federal law that child detainees cannot be held in custody for longer than 72 hours. A few days after arriving, a nurse practitioner, after examining Vasquez, found that Vasquez had a 103-degree fever and the flu. The newly discovered records reveal that Vasquez was supposed to be reexamined shortly after, and if his conditions worsened, he would need to be hospitalized. Instead, he was left in his cell and did not receive any treatment, despite his severe illness. 

The video found by ProPublica shows Vasquez attempting to get to the toilet in his stall, falling face-first on the concrete ground and lying on the floor in distress for hours before his death; he was squirming and vomiting blood. Even though Border Patrol logs claim that three welfare checks were made that night, the video footage shows that none were made.

Faced with the exposure of their illegal practices, officials within the Department of Homeland Security have tried to defend its actions. Federal officials argue that they had no choice but to hold Vasquez in custody for longer than 72 hours because of the overwhelming numbers at the Texas processing center and the lack of sufficient staffing. They also stated that they needed more time to find each child a place to stay. Officials also explained that Vazquez had attempted to enter the United States during the busiest month recorded; 144,116 migrants had attempted to enter without authorization. 

The House Democrats have taken an even deeper look into the injustices of Vazquez’s death, and starting on December 23rd, they have demanded more information from the Department of Homeland Security. The House Oversight and Reform Committee sent letters to immigration and homeland security officials, demanding to know why Vasquez was sent back to his cell despite his terrible health conditions. 

The chairwoman of the Committee, Representative Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, also questioned why Customs and Border Protection lied about how Vasquez was found. In her letter to Chad F. Wolf, the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, Maloney wrote: “The lack of treatment appears to be a flagrant violation of C.B.P.’s own detention standards and raises serious questions about whether D.H.S. is failing to treat children and adults with basic human dignity and compassion.” Officials with the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection have not responded to the letters or questioning.

Vasquez’s tragedy is not the only case of a migrant dying while in federal custody. In December 2018, Felipe Gómez Alonzo died at only 8 years old after being sent back to his cell having been diagnosed with a 103 degree fever. Similarly, Jakelin Caal Maquin, a 7 year-old migrant girl, died three weeks earlier in federal custody. She acquired a fever and was vomiting while being transported to another border patrol facility with her father. Maquin then began having seizures and was taken to a hospital; she died the next day. Deaths among children migrants in federal custody seem to be more common than ever in recent years: since President Trump took office, there have been 6 deaths of migrants under age 18. 

Also, on December 20, 2019, a 56 year-old Nigerian detainee, Anthony Oluseye Akinyemi, was found dead within ICE custody after being held there for less than 24 hours. His death was said to be from apparent “self-inflicted strangulation.” Since the beginning of the Trump administration, there have been 31 deaths within ICE custody.

Over the past year, tens of millions of dollars have been allocated to improving health conditions for migrants in federal custody, and the number of medical practitioners along the southwestern border has increased from 20 to 250– however, severe problems still exist. One examination of Border Patrol’s facilities found that staffing and health protocols are still insufficient. Flu vaccinations are not given to migrants because these individuals are only supposed to be held in custody for a short period of time, but migrants now tend to be held for longer than allowed. 

The examination also found that these facilities have ignored many warnings from Border Patrol agents concerning the poor conditions. An internal complaint from an official within Immigration and Customs Enforcement states that the facilities “systematically provided inadequate medical and mental health care and oversight to immigration detainees.”

On February 20, 2020 the Border Control facilities in the Tucson sector of Arizona were ruled by U.S. District Judge David C. Bury to be stripping migrants of their “basic needs.” It was also stated that these facilities violate the Constitution have worse conditions than prisons. Migrants are often detained for more than the legal limit of 48 hours under the supposed hostile conditions and the overcrowding has led to migrants sleeping on the bathroom floor in toilet stalls. Bury outlined these intolerable conditions in a 40-page order. He went on to require that all detainees receive mats and silver Mylar blankets and that more showers are installed, guaranteeing the access to shower to all migrants in the facilities.

With so many complaints and with the recent revelations, current laws may soon change to improve the lacking conditions migrants face while in federal custody.