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8-Year-Old Guatemalan Boy Dies in Border Patrol Custody Days After High Court Rejects Asylum Ban

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For the second time this month, a Guatemalan child has died in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Eight-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonzo died in New Mexico on Christmas Eve, after being detained since December 18. This follows the death of a 7-year-old indigenous Guatemalan girl, Jakelin Caal Maquín, who died on December 8, two days after she and her father presented themselves at the border in a bid for asylum. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has rejected President Trump’s asylum ban, which attempted to deny asylum to anyone entering the country from outside of a legal port of entry. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts joined the liberal wing of the court in the 5-4 vote. We speak to Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which helped file the lawsuit.

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: For the second time this month, a Guatemalan child has died in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Eight-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonzo died in New Mexico on Christmas Eve, after being detained since December 18th. Earlier in the day, he had been diagnosed with a common cold, given ibuprofen and antibiotics, and released. But the boy continued to become more ill throughout the day, becoming nauseous and vomiting. He was sent back to the same hospital but fell unconscious along the way. He was pronounced dead just before midnight Christmas morning. This follows the death of a 7-year-old indigenous Guatemalan girl, Jakelin Caal Maquín, who died on December 8th, two days after she and her father presented themselves at the border in a bid for asylum.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has rejected President Trump’s asylum ban, which attempted to deny asylum to anyone entering the country from outside of a legal [port] of entry. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts joined the liberal wing of the court in the 5-to-4 vote on Friday. Justice Ginsburg voted from her hospital bed. The case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for Constitutional Rights.

We’re joined now by CCR’s legal director, Baher Azmy.

It’s great to have you with us again, Baher.

BAHER AZMY: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain this lawsuit.

BAHER AZMY: Yeah, so, this lawsuit was—

AMY GOODMAN: That was decided by the Supreme Court.

BAHER AZMY: Right. The lawsuit was initially filed the day that the Trump administration promulgated a regulation, an executive order, that attempted to bar people from eligibility for asylum if they enter outside a port of entry. And what the lawsuit said is that this regulation clearly violates the plain terms of a 38-year-old statute, the Refugee Act from 1980, that specifically says individuals can apply for asylum no matter where they enter, which reflects the basic reality and the international law surrounding asylum law, which recognizes that people who are fleeing persecution do not and cannot calculate precisely where to enter in order to seek refuge. And so this principle reflects the basic humanitarian notion that people who enter, wherever they enter, shall be allowed to apply for asylum. So the Supreme Court left the decision striking down the regulation in place, as it plainly violates the law.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, President Trump had earlier dismissed the lower court decision by Judge Tigar, claiming this was an Obama judge—

BAHER AZMY: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that was making this decision. But now we have the full—a 5-4 vote in the Supreme Court upholding that.

BAHER AZMY: That’s right. And the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a majority opinion written by Jay Bybee, who was a Bush appointee, also affirmed—

AMY GOODMAN: Known for the torture memos.

BAHER AZMY: Yes, among other things, that’s right. So, it’s a little surprising and concerning that there were even four votes to reconsider the lower court’s decision, because it would seem that the law is very clear and a conservative would look at the regulation and look at the statute and see that the executive branch cannot simply rewrite a congressional statute with, you know, a flip of the pen.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have Judge Roberts, the chief justice, Roberts, siding with the liberals, and Justice Ginsburg voting from her hospital bed at Memorial Sloan Kettering.

BAHER AZMY: Yes. Yeah, quite, quite dramatic. And Judge Kavanaugh siding with the other very conservative members of the court. And so—but, you know, I think Judge Roberts, presumably, sees his role as an institutionalist now in upholding both the appearance and the integrity of the court around questions of the rule of law.

AMY GOODMAN: But maybe doesn’t want it to be called the Kavanaugh court.

BAHER AZMY: Perhaps, as well, yeah, and taking control of the institution.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, this issue of the ports of entry. Clearly, the Trump administration is making it even more difficult, day by day, for anyone to apply for asylum at a port of entry, because they’re making the waiting lines so long. But what is the difference between entering illegally and seeking asylum versus going through a port of entry?

BAHER AZMY: Well, that’s a very important point, Juan. So, they passed this—they enacted this regulation out of a stated desire to, quote, “channel” people to ports of entry, to create incentives, as if that could exist for desperate refugees. But at the same time, at ports of entry, they are blocking the application process to a trickle, and so migrants are stuck in very dangerous locations, like Laredo or Tijuana or Juárez, which have endemic violence and gang presence, and being forced to wait weeks. And people are dying there, as well, as a result of the Trump administration’s deterrence policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Which brings us to the death of this little boy, 8-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonzo, once again in New Mexico, just as Jakelin Caal died on December 8th as she and her father—and, this time, Felipe and his dad—were in Border Patrol custody. He was brought there—he came over the border December 18th. He’s been in custody for about a week. This is a second child to die.

BAHER AZMY: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: What more do you know about this?

BAHER AZMY: You know, I don’t know all of the details, and apparently there’s an investigation to be taken, but I do think we know several things. First, people, including people with children, make this journey, not, as the right would have it, to exploit the American immigration system, but out of genuine desperation to flee horrific violence or crushing degradation and poverty. Second, the journey is in fact very dangerous and arduous, which reflects, in fact, the desperation people feel to cross from, say, Guatemala, El Salvador, through Mexico, into safety in the United States.

And third, and perhaps most importantly, the product of these and other deaths on the border, on both sides of the border, comes from the Trump administration policy of deterrence. They want to make it as difficult as possible for individuals to enter the country, and, at some level, are satisfied about reports of horrific conditions on both sides of the border and deaths. And as the U.N. special rapporteur noted, the other piece of this is that children are being held in adult jails, what migrants call the icebox because they’re freezing. And all of this is intentional. Not this death in particular, but it’s part of a system designed to inflict maximum suffering, and therefore keep migrants out of this country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And we’re talking about something like 15,000, now, young people are in detention somewhere with Customs and Border [Protection]. And this is an enormous number.

BAHER AZMY: It’s an enormous number. And you pair that with the family separation policy and the asylum ban, again, it’s of a piece to criminalize basic refugee laws, or basic refugee protections, in a way that’s scandalous and in violation of the most basic international and humanitarian law protections.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this story of Felix, who dies in custody, this is in the midst of the government shutdown. Thousands of Border Patrol are working without pay, so there’s enormous stress on the system. Trump speaks on Christmas, tweets endlessly, never once mentions the death of this child nor the death of Jakelin, but tweets about the wall endlessly and about, quote, “border security.”

BAHER AZMY: Yeah, I mean, we can’t expect any sort of empathy to cross the megalomaniac’s brain. And he would presumably see this as, you know, a consequence of the child’s doing rather than a consequence of his administration’s policies.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to be joined by a 4-year-old child who’s trying to see her mother, who had been granted a visa, a Yemeni mother, but under Trump’s Muslim ban, that was revoked. You’ve brought a lawsuit in that case. We’re going to be talking about that later in the broadcast. We want to thank you for being with us now. Baher Azmy is a legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

When we come back, first, though, we’ll be joined by Richard Wolff, the well-known economist, talking about the country’s economy right now. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Winter Spirits” by Katharine Hoover. The composer and flautist died on September 21st at the age of 80.

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