A seven-year-old Guatemalan girl named Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin died last week in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the Trump administration has chosen to blame the victim and her father for the death.
This is the nation Trump has created: A country that continues to dehumanize and criminalize Central American migrants without any sense of compassion or explanation for the root causes of why people are fleeing their countries in the first place.
Jakelin died from cardiac arrest caused by severe dehydration and shock a day after she and her father turned themselves in to CBP on the U.S.-Mexico border in New Mexico.
But according to the Trump administration, her death was her fault, and it was her dad’s fault — even though government officials confirmed that, after being held for several hours in a remote CBP station, Jakelin was put on a bus for 90 minutes to be transferred to a larger border station for processing before getting any emergency medical care for her symptoms, which included vomiting. By the time the bus stopped, so had her breathing.
A child is dead and the current administration shows no remorse. Instead, just deflections about responsibility and cheap political talking points.
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“It’s heart-wrenching. Is what it is. And my heart goes out to the family, all of DHS,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told Fox News on Friday. “This is just a very sad example of the dangers of this journey. This family chose to cross illegally. What happened here was they were about 90 miles away from where we could process them. They came in such a large crowd that it took our Border Patrol folks a couple of times to get them all. We gave immediate care. We’ll continue to look into this situation. But again I cannot stress how dangerous this journey is when migrants choose to come here illegally.”
Never mind that “immediate care” didn’t really apply to Jakelin’s situation: The place where she and her father turned themselves into CBP had no medical care providers and, as the secretary noted, wasn't staffed to handle the 163 people who arrived that day. And the idea that Border Patrol is some welcoming force when migrants surrender themselves to the agency is just not true. For years, those who report on immigration enforcement know that detention conditions and methods along the U.S.-Mexico border have been poor.
Photos of the Anetlope Wells border station where Jakelin was held were made public by CBP, and these photos would suggest that conditions were not at all ideal: They essentially show an enclosed loading dock, filled with people. We may never know what they were actually like at the time she was held.
But, as a 2018 Human Rights Watch report suggests, the conditions were unlikely to have been any better: “United States immigration authorities routinely detain men, women, and children, including infants, in frigid holding cells, sometimes for days, when they are taken into custody at or near the U.S. border with Mexico. Migrants and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents alike commonly refer to these cells as hieleras (‘freezers’).”
“Women and children detained along the border usually spend one to three nights, and sometimes longer, in CBP holding cells, where they sleep on the floor, often with only a Mylar blanket, similar to the foil wrappers used by marathon runners, to protect them from the cold,” the report adds later. “Border agents sometimes require them to remove and discard sweaters or other layers of clothing, purportedly for security reasons, before they enter the holding cells.”
Keep in mind that more than 41,000 unaccompanied children crossed the border in the fiscal year that ended in September.
And though the government has argued that Jakelin's father was asked to sign forms attesting to their health, the forms are presented in English or Spanish. Jakelin’s father speaks Q’eqchi’, an indigenous language of the region, and may not speak Spanish at all.
Jakelin is just the latest victim of a system that is ill-equipped to handle even processing people with dignity and ill-prepared to accept the reality that migrants from Central America are fleeing violence and poverty that are the consequences of failed U.S. foreign policy in the region.
But instead of fixing the system, the leaders of it are saying, let’s blame the victims. It’s not like the president’s latest policies are deliberately making it harder for people to present themselves for asylum at busier ports of entry on the idea that it'll disincentivize coming, causing the understandably incentivized migrants to look for other alternatives to entry. It’s not like we haven’t been barraged with rhetoric that paints Central American migrants as murderous criminals who are coming to terrorize of American way of life.
The Trump administration could offer compassion, but blames the victims, because it’s the easy and cowardly way out.
“It's a needless death, and it's 100 percent preventable,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said on Friday. “If we could just come together and pass some common sense laws to disincentivize people from coming up from the border and encourage them to do it the right way, the legal way, then those types of deaths, those types of assaults, those types of rapes, the child smuggling, the human trafficking that would all come to an end. And we hope Democrats join the president."
The problem with this type of thinking is simple: Political talking points do nothing to bring a dead 7-year-old girl back — a 7-year-old girl who very likely had dreams, aspirations and hopes for a better tomorrow, as every 7-year-old girl already in America does.
We don’t know everything that happened to Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin last week on the U.S.-Mexico border, but if we are a country that cares for children, we should all demand answers, and demand them now. And when those answers as inhumane as the administration's responses have been so far, we need to demand change as well.