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After deaths of children, Democrats push bill on how border agency should treat migrants

The bill would require initial health screenings and guidelines for providing basic necessities to migrants in custody.
People use the legal border crossing into the United States, top, as migrants, below, wait to apply for asylum in the U.S., on the border in Tijuana, Mexico on June 9, 2019.Eduardo Verdugo / AP

A congressman who has worked as an emergency room doctor is pushing border officers to prevent deaths of more migrant children in their custody with some basic health and medical standards ranging from providing adequate drinking water to ensuring access to emergency medical care.

Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., introduced legislation requiring Customs and Border Protection to conduct health screenings with translators less than 12 hours after migrant adults are initially detained and under three hours for those considered more vulnerable, including children, elderly and pregnant women. The legislation also calls for providing basic access to emergency care, medications and life-saving medical equipment.

The bill, the Humanitarian Standards for Individuals in Customs and Border Protection Custody Act, also requires CBP migrants at least one gallon of drinking water per day.

The legislation also outlines standards for providing nutrition, sanitation and shelter that’s consistent with international humanitarian norms.

“These standards are consistent with the humanitarian principles that ensure the basic conditions for a life with dignity,” said Ruiz, who also provided emergency medical care in Mexico, El Salvador and Haiti and helped with disaster planning in Serbia.

Ruiz began drafting the bill following the death of Jakelin Caal, a 7-year-old from Guatemala who died while in CBP custody.

“Recent migrant child deaths underscore the need to move forward this bill,” Dr. Olanrewaju Falusi of the American Academy of Pediatrics said during a press conference in Washington.

At least seven migrant children, including Jakelin, are known to have died since last year while in U.S. immigration custody.

Leah Chavla, an international human rights lawyer and policy adviser at the Women's Refugee Commission, has previously said that CBP already has a set of guidelines in place that outline the conditions and resources the agency has to provide to children and other migrants in its custody.

But unlike laws, guidelines are not binding.

“It’s important to have a critical look at what’s going on and how the guidelines can be made binding,” Chavla said.

Ruiz and other members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have been working toward a bill for binding oversight since Jakelin's death.

“Conditions seem to be getting worse and there has been a level of cruelty to the way this administration has gone about handling asylum-seekers,” Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, the caucus' chairman said. “I hope that the House of Representatives and the Senate will send a strong message that the United States, the strongest, most prosperous nation on Earth, is one that would treat humanely those folks who come here seeking refuge.”

CBP took into custody almost 133,000 migrants who entered the U.S. without authorization last month. Nearly 64 percent of them were family units with children, according to CBP numbers.

Both figures have continued to rise each month since January. Although apprehensions are still well under the historic highs of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the majority of migrants then were adult men from Mexico — not asylum-seeking families with children.

“CBP must adapt to the global humanitarian challenges and realities at our doorstep,” Ruiz said.