Congressman Castro demands top border official resign after migrant girl's death

“It’s clear that many of these facilities, not just the one we visited are under resourced, there’s a lack of training, a lack of equipment,” Castro said.
Image: Joaquin Castro
Representative Joaquin Castro (D-TX) speaks outside the Border patrol Station at Lordsburg, New Mexico on Dec 18, 2018.NBC News

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By Suzanne Gamboa and Gabe Gutierrez

LORDSBURG, N.M. —Democratic Rep. Joaquín Castro issued a call for the head of Customs and Border Protection to step down for failing to speedily report the death of a 7-year-old girl while in border officials' custody.

Castro made the demand Tuesday after he and 11 other members of Congress visited border facilities to find out more about the death of Jakelin Caal Maquin.

“Based on my conversations with him, based on his conduct I believe he should step down,” Castro said of Commissioner Kevin McAleenan at a news conference outside the Lordsburg station.

Castro has previously criticized McAleenan for failing to advise Congress of Jakelin’s death within the 24 hours required by law or mentioning it when he testified before Congress last week. McAleenan has said he didn’t want to politicize her death.

Castro said it was "because it’s such a rare occurrence that makes it arguably the most significant thing that could have been discussed that morning.”

In addition, Castro and the other congressional members criticized the condition of the facilities they toured, saying they jeopardized the health of immigrants and CBP agents and officers working there.

Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., an emergency care physician, said the visit and conversations with supervisors “revealed” that Jacklin suffered seizures before she eventually became unresponsive.

“One could argue the judgment should have been to call the aeromedical evacuation. It took them, from unresponsiveness to evacuation, over an hour,” he said.

Jakelin and her father were picked up Dec. 6 near the Antelope Wells port of entry. Hours later, she was put on a bus to Lordsburg, but began vomiting on the bus and had a 105-degree fever, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

DHS arranged for an ambulance to meet the bus carrying the girl and her father at Lordsburg, about 90 miles away. DHS has said the girl was not breathing when she arrived at the station an hour and a half later.

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Ruiz criticized the available medical equipment and training of border officers to handle medical emergencies. He said her vital signs should have been taken when her father first reported she was ill at Antelope Wells; she could have been evacuated then “and she could have still been alive.”

“There were some questions whether or not, the agents had the appropriate training and the appropriate facilities, whether or not they had the appropriate equipment,” he said.

Jakelin was laid on a flat table, “they did not have suitable pediatric equipment for IV fluids, for resuscitation [or] for even monitoring,” said Ruiz.

Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., who will be part of the leadership when Democrats are in control of the U.S House next year, said that at Antelope Wells there was no water to bathe or cook in because it had been shut off.

A recent test had found the water contaminated with metals and bacteria, said Luján.

Luján said McAleenan had told him he would welcome an investigation if necessary.

“Well, it’s abundantly clear after today it is absolutely necessary,” Luján said.

Ruiz added that health care officials should be part of an independent investigative team.

The Border Patrol Station sign is shown in Lordsburg, NM on Dec 18, 2018.Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News

In a call with reporters, McAleenan said the CBP is seeing a “brand new phenomenon of very large groups of migrants arriving in one of the most remote areas of the southwest border.

In the last three days, 496 people have turned themselves in after crossing the border near Antelope Wells. Jakelin and her father arrived in a group of 163 migrants.

“We started to see extremely large groups arrive together — once or twice a week — since mid-October,” but the numbers have spiked in recent weeks, he said.

McAleenan said that unlike the caravans, the recent groups say they were able to journey to the border in four or five days aboard buses managed by a smuggling organization.

But Texas Rep.-elect Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, countered that CBP agents have been stationing themselves at the middle of the ports of entry bridges where Mexico and the United States meet, “preventing asylum seekers from lawfully stepping foot on American soil so they can seek asylum.”

"A challenge we are facing as a country is being exacerbated and being made far worse by this administration,” she said.

A changed landscape

Josiah Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies, said Border Patrol has failed to adjust its enforcement procedures to the changed immigration landscape, even though it was warned in a report from the University of Texas at El Paso about five or six years ago that the populations coming to the country were changing.

“The Border Patrol is the most traditionalistic organization imaginable. It is entirely focused on arresting adult Mexican men,” Heyman said. “When that changed, they fell completely apart.”

The heightened scrutiny of the border enforcement comes as President Donald Trump is in a standoff with Congress over his demand for funding a wall on the southern border. Trump has said he is willing to shut down the government to get $5 billion to build the wall, which he had said during his campaign would be built at Mexico’s expense.

The congressional members pointed to the water issues, the lack of medical resources, crowded facilities and the increased traffic in remote and more dangerous areas — which they said is where people are pushed when walls are built — to criticize what they said were the administration’s “skewed priorities” in funding border security.

“It’s clear that many of these facilities, not just the one we visited are under resourced, there’s a lack of training, a lack of equipment,” Castro said. “All of that adds up to bad priorities, wrong priorities.”

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