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Detained, Abused & Denied Medical Care: How Trump Immigration Policies Led to Child Deaths at Border

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A 16-year-old Guatemalan boy died in U.S. custody Monday after spending a week in immigration jail. Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez was found dead at a Border Patrol station at Weslaco, Texas, just one day after being diagnosed with the flu. He was not hospitalized. This marks the fifth death of a Guatemalan child apprehended by Border Patrol since December. Before last year, it had been more than a decade since a child died in the custody of U.S. immigration officials. We speak with Fernando Garcia, the founding director of the Border Network for Human Rights, an advocacy organization based in El Paso, and Jennifer Harbury, a longtime human rights lawyer based in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas.

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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 yet another tragedy on the U.S.-Mexico border, where a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy died in U.S. custody Monday after spending a week in immigration jail. Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez died at a Border Patrol station at Weslaco, Texas, after being diagnosed with the flu. He was not hospitalized. This marks the fifth death of a Guatemalan child apprehended by Border Patrol since December. Before last year, it had been more than a decade since a child died in the custody of U.S. immigration officials.

AMY GOODMAN: Carlos Hernandez was arrested near the border in the South Rio Grande Valley May 13th and taken to a processing center in McAllen, Texas, where hundreds of migrants are held in large pens and forced to sleep on mats. U.S. law typically requires minors to be sent to facilities operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services within three days of being detained, but Carlos was held in McAllen for more than double that time. On Sunday, six days after he was first arrested, he reportedly was diagnosed with the flu after telling Border Patrol agents he was sick. Rather than hospitalize the 16-year-old, officials prescribed him Tamiflu and transferred him to another Border Patrol station in Weslaco. He was found dead the next morning.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The teenager’s death comes less than a week after a 2-and-a-half-year-old boy, whose family was apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso in April, died on May 14th, after spending weeks in the hospital with pneumonia and a high fever.

Two weeks before that, another 16-year-old, Juan de León Gutiérrez, died after being apprehended by Border Patrol agents near El Paso. The Guatemalan Foreign Ministry said Gutiérrez died of complications from an infection in his brain’s frontal lobe.

The spate of migrant child deaths began in December, when 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin died of a bacterial infection after being in Border Patrol custody. Soon after that, an 8-year-old boy, Felipe Gómez Alonzo, died of a flu infection while in Border Patrol custody on Christmas Eve.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on the humanitarian crisis, we’re joined by two guests. Here in New York, Fernando Garcia is with us, the founding director of the Border Network for Human Rights, an advocacy group based in El Paso. And in Weslaco, Texas, we’re joined by Jennifer Harbury on the telephone. She’s a longtime human rights lawyer based in the Rio Grande Valley, along the U.S.-Mexico border, an activist with the Angry Tias.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jennifer has a long history in Guatemala, as well. But let’s begin with Fernando Garcia. Your response to this latest death, the death of Carlos, which follows the death of a 2-and-a-half-year-old, which follows, which follows, which follows?

FERNANDO GARCIA: Well, thanks for having me. I mean, these are—it’s important to say that these are not circumstantial deaths. I mean, migrants are dying—children are dying—because of the way that the U.S. administration, the Trump administration, is treating these refugees and asylum seekers. And it’s not circumstantial, because we had five deaths since December, but also in the whole year we had another one that happened in last May. So we have six children dying while in detention.

The conditions that we had documented in detentions are horrific conditions. This is not the America that we know. I mean, we had children sleeping on the ground in the dirt, with no access to water and medical attention, very limited medication and healthcare. I think we have a human rights crisis—not only a humanitarian crisis, a human rights crisis—because, at the end of the day, the borders define the nation, the character of the nation, and what we have today, it is that children are dying because of U.S. strategies.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Fernando, I wanted to read to you what the acting Customs and Border [Protection] commissioner, John Sanders, said in a statement. He said, quote, “The men and women of U.S. Customs and Border Protection are saddened by the tragic [loss] of this young man and our condolences are with his family. CBP is committed to the health, safety and humane treatment of those in our custody.” Your response to his statement?

FERNANDO GARCIA: You know, that is sure to be cynic. I mean, the situation on the ground doesn’t reflect what they are saying in this statement. They are showing a complete disregard of the lives and the rights of immigrants and refugees. Let’s remind ourselves, many of these families, many of these children are fleeing violent conditions in the country, economic depression, looking for a better life. And what they had found, it is, in this case, children dying at the border. And again, what we have documented is gross human rights violations in these detention centers.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to bring in Jennifer Harbury. You’re there in Weslaco. You’ve been visiting some of the migrants and the refugees as they’re being held in detention. What’s your take on what’s happening?

JENNIFER HARBURY: Well, I see a lot of the people in Reynosa, Mexico, where they’re gathering, quote-unquote, “waiting their turn” to cross. And then I see a lot of them when their families are being released to go north. Those are the ones who are crossing with children. And they have just been released from the hielera, literally. They’ve gone to the church refuge center to get a change of clothes and stuff, and arrived at the bus station.

And the difference in their health conditions is extraordinary. In Reynosa, they’re exhausted. They’re terrorized, because they could be kidnapped, or have been kidnapped, at any moment in northern Mexico. There’s gunfights going on. But, overall, they and their children are OK. Some of them have a stomach bug. Some of them have colds. A couple of them have flu, here and there. But, overall, they’re doing all right. By the time they come out of the hielera, where I see them and people like them at the bus station not long thereafter—right?—almost all of them are really sick, with extreme respiratory problems, because they’re kept in holding cells with the AC cranked up so high, and then given no blankets, just those mylar ones, so that they just literally are freezing for days on end. All of them are seriously sick, the children with diarrhea and also, like I say, severe respiratory problems from the cold.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Jennifer—

JENNIFER HARBURY: But also, they’re all piled in.

AMY GOODMAN: Hielera is Spanish for “icebox.” Where are you talking about these, as they’re called, iceboxes are? And what do they look like inside?

JENNIFER HARBURY: OK, I cannot go into the icebox. I see people just after they’re released from the icebox. But the one that would be in our area is the notorious one at Ursula, just south of the city of McAllen.

AMY GOODMAN: So it’s in the United States. It’s on the U.S. side of the border.

JENNIFER HARBURY: It’s in the—that’s right. So, people come across from Reynosa, where they have gathered at the shelter, and conditions are really rough, but they’re OK. By the time the hielera on the U.S. side gets through with holding them for a few days, they’re really sick. And I’ve had like a mom with her child just recovering from chickenpox, and she said, “Yeah, you know, we got it in there. And they kept us all together in the sleeping area. We’re piled all in on top of each other. And they didn’t take us to a clinic.” Extreme diarrhea, you don’t get take—there’s basically no medical care.

So, by the time they come out, they’re really sick, and it’s almost too late. So we have cases like this tragedy of the person who got sent on from there exactly up to the Weslaco processing center and just abandoned in a room somewhere because he couldn’t be held with the adults.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jennifer—

JENNIFER HARBURY: I just think the child—yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The fact that so many of those who have died have been Guatemalan, because, obviously, people are coming over from Honduras and Salvador, as well.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the particular impact, especially to you, with your long history, in terms of the Guatemalan popular movement there, your reaction to that, as well?

JENNIFER HARBURY: I’m not sure what the cause of that is. And I certainly do want to find out. I think part of it is the extreme lack of resources of anyone from Guatemala in making their way north, and it’s probably just a much rougher trip. They were exposed to the conditions and probably were much more exhausted by the time they got here, and then were tossed into these rooms, or dormitories or pigpens or whichever you would like to call them, without any medical protection or care. People are sleeping on the floor, packed in. And so they all get everything from each other, and more caused by the cold.

AMY GOODMAN: Fernando Garcia, you’re nodding your head as Jennifer is down there in Weslaco talking about that area where Carlos just died. What is the legality of this? Keeping children in iceboxes, in freezing boxes. How long are they being held for?

FERNANDO GARCIA: You know, they’re supposed to be—I mean, children, specifically children, they’re supposed to be held only for 72 hours in these Border Patrol or ICE detention centers. And then, after that, they should be either released or transferred. But that is not necessarily happening. I mean, in the case of Carlos Gregorio, he was held by Border Patrol for seven days. They cannot wash their hands and say that they didn’t know anything that happened in those seven days. I mean, that is ridiculous.

What we are seeing is a complete lack of accountability and oversight of these institutions. I think the standards that they are acting, they are not only violating human rights, but also the U.S. Constitution. I mean, they are clearly buying into this rhetoric that immigrants are rapists, criminals, and this xenophobic sentiment. And I think that is the reason why there is this treatment that they are going through in the detention centers.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what kind of access do civil society organizations or local governments or even members of Congress have to be able to get into these detention centers and ascertain for themselves what’s happening?

FERNANDO GARCIA: Well, we don’t have access. I mean, and that actually became very clear after Trump got elected. In the past, we had very good relations with the local Border Patrol stations and ICE officers. After Trump was elected, we saw a number of things happening. The Tornillo case, where we had, like, children being separated from their mothers, and we didn’t have access to that. Now there are other detention centers being built. The hieleras, the iceboxes, they have at least one in every detention center, in every processing center. And sometimes they are being used to punish people. If they misbehave, they will send them to the hieleras.

So, we don’t have access. We had requested many times to go and observe what is the situation that these children, these families are going through. And it’s very limited. I mean, it seems that they are hiding something. And what they are hiding is these conditions that are leading up to all of these children dying.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Lindsey Graham has introduced a bill that would deny people the right to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, forcing them instead to take their claims to U.S. consulates in their home countries, even if their lives are in danger. Graham’s bill would also increase the number of days that migrant children could be detained to 100, five times the current limit. Fernando, your response?

FERNANDO GARCIA: No, you know, I think this is part of a larger vision, of a larger agenda, that’s being applied at the border. They not only don’t want more legal immigrants coming into the country, but they are strengthening the militarization of the border, that we have more military, police officers, Border Patrol, like never before. I think we have one of the most militarized areas. And even in those conditions, they still want to reject asylum seekers. And I think, at the end of the day, they are going against American history. Let’s remind ourselves that many people came from other countries because of the same conditions. Europeans came to the United States through Ellis Island because they were fleeing violence. It seems that the Trump administration is going against history and against our American values.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to talk more about that in a minute, but we have to break. Fernando Garcia, founding director of the Border Network for Human Rights, is joining us in studio, usually in El Paso. And Jennifer Harbury is with us, longtime human rights lawyer based in the Rio Grande Valley, speaking to us from Weslaco.

This is Democracy Now! After that, we will be speaking with a brother and sister of the leading Saudi feminist human rights activist, who’s been jailed for more than a year. They and she say that she has been tortured in Saudi prison. Stay with us.

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Next story from this daily show

Jennifer Harbury: Deaths of Guatemalan Children at Border Have Roots in Decades of U.S.-Backed Genocide

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