U.S. Customs and Border Protection have ordered medical checks on every child in its custody, following the death of two Guatemalan children in recent weeks. On Christmas Eve, an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy named Felipe Gómez Alonzo died in New Mexico while in CBP custody. This follows the death of a 7-year-old indigenous Guatemalan girl, Jakelin Caal Maquín, who died on December 8—also in New Mexico—two days after she and her father presented themselves at the border in a bid for asylum. Meanwhile, authorities in El Paso, Texas, scrambled over the Christmas holiday to assist hundreds of migrant asylum seekers who were dropped off suddenly by ICE officials outside a Greyhound bus terminal without any plan to house them. We speak with Dylan Corbett, executive director of Hope Border Institute, an El Paso-based charity that assists migrants.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: U.S. Customs and Border Protection have ordered medical checks on every child in its custody, following the death of two Guatemalan children in recent weeks. On Christmas Eve, an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy named Felipe Gómez Alonzo died in New Mexico while in CBP custody. The child was admitted to a hospital earlier on Christmas Eve, diagnosed with a common cold, given ibuprofen and antibiotics, and released. But the boy continued to become more ill throughout the day. After he began vomiting, the boy was sent back to the same hospital but fell unconscious along the way. He was pronounced dead 12 minutes before Christmas. The cause of death is not yet known. The boy was first detained along with his father on December 18th after they crossed the border west of El Paso, Texas.
This follows the death of a 7-year-old indigenous Guatemalan girl, Jakelin Caal Maquín, who died on December 8th—also in New Mexico—two days after she and her father presented themselves at the border in a bid for asylum. On Christmas Day, about 150 people gathered for her funeral in the impoverished Guatemalan mountain village of San Antonio Secortez.
AMY GOODMAN: In more immigration news, authorities in El Paso, Texas, scrambled over the Christmas holiday to assist hundreds of migrant asylum seekers who were dumped suddenly by ICE officials outside a Greyhound bus terminal without any plan to house them. Local shelters say they weren’t told in advance of ICE’s plans, as is customary, leaving them struggling to find accommodations for hundreds of migrants, including young children. On Sunday, Greyhound brought in buses where migrants could shelter overnight into the Christmas Eve holiday. Sergeant Robert Gomez of the El Paso Police Department said, “We weren’t going to put 200 people on the streets of El Paso on a cold night. We wouldn’t do that,” he said. On Wednesday night, immigration authorities released hundreds of more migrants at a downtown El Paso bus station, bringing the number of people released this week to more than 1,000.
Well, for more, we’re going to El Paso, Texas, where we’re joined by Dylan Corbett, executive director of Hope Border Institute.
Dylan, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Can you explain what’s been happening in El Paso? Why are so many hundreds of migrants being dumped at the bus station by ICE?
DYLAN CORBETT: Sure. You know, it’s rather confusing, what’s been going on. Since the 23rd of December, just a couple days before Christmas, what happened is ICE began to release—effectively, as you say, dump—many migrants downtown on a cold night in El Paso. These were migrants who had just come from CBP cells across our border community. And when they were released, they were released confused. They were released hungry. They were tired. They had been in difficult and cramped conditions in cells, Border Patrol cells and CBP cells. And many of them were sick.
Now, it’s inexplicable as to why ICE chose to do this. Normally, there’s a lot of cooperation between the government and the network of migrant shelters here in El Paso, led by Annunciation House, which does stellar work in providing for the humanitarian needs of migrants who are released into our community. But ICE chose not to do this around the Christmas holiday. On the 23rd, they released 200 people at night. The following day, on Christmas Eve, they released another 200 folks. And then, on Christmas Day, they continued to do it and released 200 folks. Yesterday they suspended that practice, and 500 folks were released into our community, but there was greater collaboration with the network of migrant shelters here in El Paso.
We hope that this isn’t something that repeats itself. This has never happened. The only other time that this happened was the week before elections, at the very end of October. So it’s hard not to see a political character to this. It’s hard not to see that the administration is deliberately trying to foment the image of a crisis at the border. And it, frankly, doesn’t exist; it’s manufactured in Washington.
AMY GOODMAN: So, with this as the backdrop, let’s look at the death of two Guatemalan children in three weeks in U.S. custody. This horrific example of Felipe Gómez Alonzo—he was the second of the two children—who on Christmas Eve—explain what you understand happened. He had come over the border with his dad. He was held by Border Patrol by—it was just under a week. How did he get sick and die? What is happening? This, of course—you’re in El Paso. He was in New Mexico. He died in an Alamogordo hospital.
DYLAN CORBETT: Sure. You know, the case of Felipe Alonzo Gómez, an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy who died on Christmas Eve, was chilling to me, because on Christmas Day, when ICE released 200 migrants, all of them were families. All of them were fathers with children or mothers with children. When they released them, those children, off the bus, when they essentially kicked them off the bus into downtown El Paso, one of those kids, who was about 7 or 8 years old, the same age as Felipe Alonzo [Gómez], the same age as Jakelin Caal, probably from Guatemala, was feverish and was dehydrated. Thank God nearby there were local fire department—there was a local fire department, and they were able to offer first aid to that child, and we were able to send him to a hospital in an ambulance.
But these children are being held in conditions—these families are being held in terrible conditions in CBP and Border Patrol cells, anywhere between four and eight days before they’re released into either ICE custody, or, if they’re claiming asylum in their families, they’re released into our community. The conditions are not good. We’re hearing from migrants that they’re very cramped conditions, many, many people in small—in very small cells, people not having the ability to bathe for several days. Food is minimal. Access to the bathroom is minimal. They’re telling us that they’re not even able to go to the bathroom with any degree of privacy.
So, in these conditions, it’s to be expected that children are going to get sick. And that’s what we saw with Jakelin Caal in the beginning of December, that she presented dehydration symptoms, that she presented fever—feverish—a fever, a very high fever. And she had been in the Border Patrol custody for several hours, almost nine hours, before she finally expired.
Felipe Alonzo [Gómez] was apprehended close by here in El Paso, just a few miles outside our community, and yet he was taken from here to a Border Patrol checkpoint, a highway checkpoint, about a hundred miles away, in Alamogordo. Now, why that’s unacceptable is because children are not supposed to be in Border Patrol checkpoints on the highway. Those facilities are not appropriate for children. I hope that that did not contribute to his sickness. I hope that that did not contribute to his death. But we should not be holding children and families in these conditions.
This has been going on for a long time. Unfortunately, I think this was to be expected. It’s unfortunate that we’ve got to the point where there have been the deaths of two children before the government is starting to act. It’s sad that it had to come to this. But we need institutional reform now. We need actions on the part of CBP to guarantee the safety and security of the families and children in their custody.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, on December 20th, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was grilled at a heated congressional hearing about the Trump administration’s border and immigration policies. She was questioned by Democratic Congressmembers David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Hank Johnson of Georgia.
REP. HANK JOHNSON: How many children 17 years old or younger have died in DHS, ICE or CBP custody since you took office?
HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: I will get back to you on that figure. What I can tell you is that we have saved 4,200 migrants who were at distress due to their journey.
REP. HANK JOHNSON: Well, approximately, how many have died in custody?
HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: I understand your question, sir. I will get back to you.
REP. HANK JOHNSON: Can you give me an approximate figure?
HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: I will get back to you; I’m not going to guess under oath.
REP. DAVID CICILLINE: 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. And you—in preparation for today’s hearing, you didn’t ascertain that number. But you don’t know it today?
HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: I don’t have an exact figure for you.
REP. DAVID CICILLINE: Do you have a rough idea?
HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Sir, what I can tell you is—
REP. DAVID CICILLINE: I’m talking about people who have died in your custody. You don’t have the number?
HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: I will get back to you with the number.
REP. DAVID CICILLINE: OK.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Congressmember Johnson went on to ask Nielsen, “Do you view those you call 'illegal aliens' to be human or subhuman?” So, Dylan, could you respond to what Kirstjen Nielsen said—and what she didn’t say?
DYLAN CORBETT: Yeah. You know, that’s absolutely unacceptable that the Department of Homeland—that the secretary for the Department of Homeland Security doesn’t know how many children have died in her custody. But that’s a piece with the lack of transparency. That’s a piece with the lack of accountability in these institutions. ICE and CBP are rife with a lack of accountability and transparency.
Something else that’s very troubling that has to do with the death of Jakelin Caal, CBP, under federal law, is obliged to inform Congress within 24 hours if a child dies in their custody. Commissioner McAleenan of the CBP did not do that. He did not inform Congress until several days later, effectively breaking the law. If CBP, if DHS cannot guarantee the safety and security of the families and the children in their custody, if they’re not going to be accountable to Congress, at this point, I don’t see how the CBP commissioner or how the DHS secretary can’t be called on to resign at this point.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Dylan, can you explain what—just clarify: Have children ever died in ICE custody before, during the Obama administration?
DYLAN CORBETT: This is something that’s new. Folks, adults—yes, adults have died while in custody, but this is something new, and this is something that’s troubling. CBP effectively is not able to guarantee their health or security. The conditions in which they’re in, the cells in which they’re in are not meant to house families. There is a—it’s true that what we’ve seen—although when you look at the past 30, 40 years, we’re at a relative low in terms of border crossings, it’s true that what’s happened lately, as of late, is that there are a number—the number of families crossing the border has spiked. Last month, November, 60 percent of all border apprehensions were families.
But what the government’s response has been in the Trump administration and what the government’s response has been over the last several decades—this is bipartisan, this is on both the presidents and the Congress—has been: respond to the problem of immigration at the border by criminalizing migrants and by militarizing the border. So, it was to be expected, when your only response is to criminalize people, when your only response is to deploy racism, when your only response is to militarize, that you can’t respond to a humanitarian situation like we have right now. CBP, despite their incredible budgets, despite the incredible resources that they have, despite 18,000 Border Patrol agents here at the border, we are unable to respond to what is actually happening at the border, because we’re treating migrants as criminals and threats to our country, which they’re not. These are families seeking refuge, safety and security. And they’re being driven by forced migration, a lot of which the United States is complicit in.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Democratic Congressmemeber Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois. He addressed Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen at that December 20th hearing.
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Specifically in the area of homeland security, lying has become elevated to a new and astounding level of mendacity. President Trump descended the golden escalators at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy by saying Mexico was sending us the worst, rapists, murderers. Then he said he was required to break up migrant families because of bad laws that the Democrats gave us. How about the one about Mexico paying for the wall? You want $5 million, and you want—$5 billion, and you want the American public to pay for it. Isn’t Mexico supposed to pay for it? Wasn’t that the campaign promise? No, that’s just another lie. …
But I have to say, the all-time record for lying, in the face of all the evidence, was a tweet you, Madam Secretary, sent out on June the 17th. And it says, “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.” That’s your Twitter account. That’s what you put out. Yet you came here today to tell us exactly is your policy of separating families and children from their families. Another lie.
I know I have 45 seconds. I won’t take them all. But it is repugnant to me and astonishing to me that during Christmas—I like to call them the holiday seasons, to be inclusive, but during Christmas, because the majority always wants to just call it Christmas—that during Christmas, a time in which we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, a Jesus Christ who had to flee for his life with Mary and Joseph, thank God there wasn’t a wall that stopped him from seeking refuge in Egypt!
AMY GOODMAN: That was Congressmember Luis Gutiérrez, after which he walked out of the hearing with the head of the Department of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen. As congressmember after congressmember demanded to know how many people had died in border custody, she refused to answer. Afterwards, they did release a number. They said, in the last year, from October 1st, 2017, to September 30th, 2018, six adults have died, and since October 1st, two children have died.
So, Dylan Corbett, is it true that what’s happening right now is that migrants are being picked up—immigrants are being picked up with such speed, to be deported, and they need those ICE detention centers to put them in on their way to deportation, that the children and other immigrants, who are not supposed to be in BPS custody for—[CBP] custody for more than 72 hours, are being held much longer and, as you said, in much more primitive conditions?
DYLAN CORBETT: Yeah, that’s true. And what we’re seeing—you know, you mentioned at the top of the program that we were in the midst of a government shutdown. This is a government shutdown that has been instigated by President Trump over precisely border funding, funding for the border wall, increased militarization of the border. What we’ve seen over 2018 was zero tolerance, with placing agents—there are currently agents here on the bridges in El Paso, Texas, preventing people from lawfully accessing asylum, pushing them away and forcing them to go to more remote and dangerous parts of the border, where they have to cross illegally and in more precarious conditions. That’s exactly what happened to Jakelin Caal. Jakelin Caal and her father were not—would not have been allowed to present at the bridge and ask for asylum. They were forced to go into more remote parts of the border. That is something that directly contributed to her death.
We’ve also seen—as you said, you know, we heard about family separation. This year over 2,000 children were separated from their families. Family separation continues. There was the gentleman and his—a migrant father and his child, who I saw just a couple days ago, who was kicked off the bus by ICE, who has been separated from his spouse. Family separation continues to happen. We have the reality of Tornillo, the detention camp just miles outside of El Paso.
This border—this politicization of the border, these border politics, shutting down the government in order to get your way on militarizing the border, what we’re seeing is all these different tactics, all these different policies and practices, by CBP, by ICE, by the Department of Homeland Security, stemming from decisions that are being taken in the White House, are now having deadly consequences. People have to wake up to the fact that this is not—we do not need a militarized response here on the border. We need to demilitarize. We need to defund. And we need to treat people with dignity and respect, recognizing that we are responsible for their forced migration, out of countries like Guatemala, where Jakelin and Felipe come from.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, you have the situation where President Trump has shut down the government over getting $5 billion for the border wall. And in this shutdown, hundreds, if not thousands—I don’t know—of CBP border agents are not being paid. They’re part of the program of being—of their salaries being cut at this point, to be paid in the future.
DYLAN CORBETT: That’s right. And it’s all about, you know, a border wall. And the border wall, it has to be said, this is not a solution to a problem. This is an invented solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. The border will not—the border wall will not make us more safe. El Paso, Texas, I’m right on the border. Outside my window I can see my sister city of Ciudad Juárez in Mexico. We are one of the safest cities in the country. We don’t need a border wall to keep us safe. Terrorists have not passed through our southern border. A border will not—a border wall will not address the drivers of migration. People will continue to come from countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador until we address the root causes of migration.
AMY GOODMAN: Dylan, we want to thank—
DYLAN CORBETT: A border wall will not stop drugs.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for being with us. And, of course, CBP is Customs and Border Protection. That’s what it stands for. Dylan Corbett is executive director of Hope Border Institute in El Paso, Texas.
When we come back, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has just been released from the hospital after cancer surgery. She voted from her bed in a Supreme Court decision this past Friday. We’ll get the latest on her condition and talk about her life. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Space” by composer Galt MacDermot. MacDermot died last week, a day shy of his 90th birthday.