Justice for Jakelin: Lawmakers Demand Answers in Death of 7-Year-Old Girl in Border Patrol Custody

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Outrage is mounting over the death of a 7-year-old indigenous Guatemalan girl in Border Patrol custody, as lawmakers demand answers for the conditions that led Jakelin Caal Maquín to die after being detained at the U.S.-Mexico border. Maquin died on December 8, two days after she and her father presented themselves at the border alongside 161 other Central American asylum seekers. She had been held in detention for more than eight hours when she began to have seizures. Border Patrol agents brought the girl to the hospital after her body temperature spiked to 105.7 degrees. The 7-year-old died of dehydration, shock and liver failure at an El Paso hospital less than 24 hours later. We speak with Clara Long, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show with the mounting outrage over the death of a 7-year-old indigenous Guatemalan girl in Border Patrol custody, as lawmakers demand answers for the conditions that led Jakelin Caal Maquín to die after being detained at the U.S.-Mexico border. Maquín died on December 8th, two days after she and her father presented themselves at the U.S.-Mexico border alongside 161 other Central American asylum seekers. She had been held in detention for more than eight hours when she began to have seizures. Border Patrol agents brought the girl to the hospital after her body temperature spiked to 105.7 degrees. The 7-year-old died of dehydration, shock and liver failure at an El Paso hospital less than 24 hours later.

Democratic Congressmember Joaquin Castro is now calling on the head of Customs and Border Protection to resign for failing to promptly disclose the girl’s death. CBP chief Kevin McAleenan testified before Congress three days after Jakelin died in Border Patrol custody, but did not mention her death in his testimony.

AMY GOODMAN: A group of Democratic lawmakers retraced Jakelin Maquín’s steps on Tuesday, touring the Lordsburg Border Patrol station in New Mexico, where she was held shortly before her death. This is Houston Congressmember Al Green.

REP. AL GREEN: What I saw in this facility is unbelievable and unconscionable. The SPCA would not allow animals to be treated the way human beings are being treated in this facility. This is an humanitarian crisis that is being treated as a law enforcement circumstance. The humanitarian crisis has got to receive the attention that it merits, and I place the blame where it belongs. The tone and tenor of all of this starts at the top: the president of the United States of America.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Houston Congressmember Al Green.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Here in New York, Greg Grandin is with us, the prize-winning author, historian of Latin American history at New York University, his forthcoming book, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. His latest piece for The Nation is titled “Who Killed Jakelin Caal Maquín at the US Border?” And in Oakland, California, we’re joined by Clara Long, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. She wrote an article earlier this week for the Human Rights Watch blog on Jakelin’s death.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! We’re going to begin with you, Clara. I mean, this story of what happened to this little indigenous Guatemalan girl, who traveled up from Guatemala, mainly by bus, with her dad, comes over the border, a remote area of New Mexico, put in CBP custody—Customs and Border Patrol custody—and she gets—she’s put on this bus, and very quickly she gets extremely sick. She’s vomiting. Her father tells, according to reports, CBP. Tell us what happened then. Describe this journey, as you understand it.

CLARA LONG: Well, thanks, Amy. First of all, I mean, I think that an independent—an impartial outside investigation is urgently needed. What we have now are facts as they’ve been reported. And as you say, she got on a bus. You know, we understand that at that point she began to vomit and to spike a very high fever, and that the bus sort of continued on its way between the Antelope Wells Border Patrol station to another location in New Mexico that was a bit closer to medical care, but even there, when she arrived, receiving—you know, received emergency medical care and then was ultimately transferred via helicopter to a children’s hospital. You know, she, essentially, did not recover from this really serious health crisis.

You know, in this case, I don’t think we yet know what’s happened. And, in fact, the family has asked the media to stop speculating about the cause of death until an official autopsy report comes in. What’s been shocking to me is that the first statements from the government said that this little girl hadn’t eaten for several days. The family said that’s not at all true, that she had had access to food during the journey. You know, I think there are a lot of facts still to find out here. But what we can sort of already keep in mind is the context. And I think—you know, there was a great op-ed in the L.A. Times yesterday by a former Border Patrol agent who said essentially that. You know, “We don’t know what happened in this case, but”—that this Border Patrol agent said, and we found in our research. “But what we do know is this agency has a culture of indifference and of neglect and of abuse of migrants.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Clara Long, you’re right that we still don’t know all of the facts of what happened here, but this whole issue of the fact that this was an indigenous migrant who not only didn’t speak English, but his primary language wasn’t even Spanish. It was a Mayan language. So, could you talk about the whole issue of, at the same time that the government is attempting to interdict and detain all these migrants, the resources available to it to be able to even communicate with some of those who are coming over is severely lacking?

CLARA LONG: Right. I mean, that’s a legitimate challenge, to be able to deal effectively with language diversity. You know, what we’ve seen a lot in our research, especially about the processing of asylum seekers, is that the Border Patrol purports to conduct very important interviews, like these health screenings or asylum screenings, in Spanish with people who do not speak that language, and that there is, essentially, no regard for being able to communicate effectively with asylum seekers. So that’s completely of a piece with, you know, what we understand is accepted practice in the agency, and it’s hugely problematic. Of course—

AMY GOODMAN: Forget Spanish for a minute. Apparently, at least according to reports and her lawyer, he was forced to sign, on the border, something verifying her health in English.

CLARA LONG: Correct, yeah, right, I mean, which is even that much farther afield from what is true communication. I mean, you know, the CBP commissioner, in that testimony that you mentioned, where he didn’t comply with his legal obligation to inform Congress of a death in custody—of a child, no less—also said something very telling, which is that the CBP installations on the border are inappropriate for the humanitarian crisis that the United States is dealing with here. And I think people should actually be taking that thread and thinking about exactly what the congressperson mentioned in the clip that started the segment: Why should this little girl be in a jail-like system in the first place? The United States can do this better. It can do it from a humanitarian perspective, receiving people with dignity and humanity, screening them, making sure that they’re well taken care of. But treating people like criminals will lead, unfortunately, to these kind of outcomes.

AMY GOODMAN: You also have the head of CBP, as Juan was just saying, testifying before Congress days after she died, but not mentioning that this little 7-year-old died in U.S. custody.

CLARA LONG: Right. And that’s—you know, it seems very likely that that is in direct violation of the law, essentially. Congress told DHS, you know, “We want to hear about any death in your custody within 24 hours.” And that didn’t happen in this case, so, you know—which raises, to me, really serious questions about whether this agency is even under the rule of law. Does it even—you know, what laws does it think applies to it and to its operations?

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Next story from this daily show

Greg Grandin: How U.S. Policies Punished Central Americans, Long Before Jakelin Caal Maquín’s Death

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