By Amy Goodman & Denis Moynihan
On Christmas Eve, Felipe Gomez Alonzo, an 8-year-old Guatemalan child, took his last breath. He had been detained for close to a week by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). He died at 11:48 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 24, at the Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center in Alamogordo, New Mexico. He didn’t make it to Christmas. On that same day, the coffin containing the corpse of 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin arrived at her Guatemalan village of San Antonio Secortez. She died on Dec. 8, after just over a day in CBP custody, also in New Mexico. Two children dead in three weeks. President Donald Trump has been tweeting incessantly about border issues and spoke on Christmas about the need for “a wall, a fence, whatever they’d like to call it,” but has never mentioned either of these two young victims of his administration’s draconian immigration policies.
Felipe and his father were detained on Dec. 18, several miles from the Paso del Norte port of entry in El Paso, Texas. According to the CBP, they were held at the port of entry for two days, then transferred to a Border Patrol station in El Paso on Dec. 20. Two nights later, they were driven 90 miles to the Border Patrol station in Alamogordo, New Mexico, arriving at around 1 a.m. on Dec 23. By 9 a.m. on the 24th, Felipe was coughing and had “glossy eyes.” He was brought to the medical center with a fever of 103 degrees F. He was prescribed an antibiotic and ibuprofen, and released back into CBP custody. Felipe and his father were then brought to a remote roadside Border Patrol checkpoint on U.S. Route 70, more than 20 miles west of Alamogordo. Felipe began vomiting, and by 10 p.m. had become lethargic. He was brought back to the hospital, where he died just before midnight.
The deaths have provoked a firestorm of criticism against the CBP and the Department of Homeland Security that runs it. DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, appearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Dec. 20 — after Jakelin died, but while Felipe was still in detention — was asked by Democratic Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson for an estimate of how many children died in DHS custody. She refused to “guess under oath.” Rep. David Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island, asked, “As you sit here today, you do not know how many human beings have died while in the custody of the department that you lead?” She admitted she did not. And outgoing Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Chicago called her and her boss President Trump liars, and left the chamber as she attempted to rebut his remarks. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus were recently blocked from investigating Jakelin Caal’s death.
“These and other deaths on the border come from the Trump administration policy of deterrence,” Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said on the “Democracy Now!” news hour. “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.” Azmy, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center, sued to block a Trump proclamation that no one who enters the U.S. over the southern border, away from an official port of entry, can apply for asylum. On Friday, the U.S Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, upheld an injunction blocking the asylum ban. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, recovering from surgery to remove cancerous tumors from her lungs, voted from her New York hospital bed. In a surprise move, Chief Justice John Roberts provided the swing vote, joining with the liberal justices.
“People [are] fleeing conditions of violence and deprivation, in part created by this government,” Azmy added. “To be met with exclusion from this government for problems we are in part responsible for, and to deny these human beings their desire for freedom to be reunited with loved ones and for opportunity, is the height of cruelty and arbitrariness.”
Mass jailing of asylum seekers, in some cases leading to death, is not a policy created by the Trump administration. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch, in two separate studies, documented close to 40 deaths of adult immigrants in U.S. detention between 2010 and 2015, under President Barack Obama. But the racism that drives Trump’s immigration policies is noxious and criminal. All caring people in this country, whether citizens or not, need to demand not one more death of an asylum-seeker in detention.