Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is calling the death of a 7-year-old girl in her agency’s custody “a very sad example” of the dangers of coming to the US illegally.
The girl died last Saturday, more than two days after she and her father were taken into custody by Border Patrol agents in a remote area of New Mexico.
The case is a tragic reminder of the gaping mismatch between the US’s immigration system and the nature of the immigrants it must process. The procedures and facilities the US uses were designed at a time when most undocumented immigrants were Mexican men in search of jobs. Now the the Border Patrol is encountering a growing number of Central American families and children, who are far more vulnerable.
The girl, along with 162 other immigrants, were taken to a Border Patrol “Forward Operating Base” (FOB) near the place where they crossed the border. The idea behind such facilities was borrowed from the military, which uses them to keep personnel in remote, hard-to-reach areas. By staying at an FOB, border agents can quickly respond to any nearby activity, while avoiding long daily commutes. The FOB where the girl was kept was “not constructed to hold any sizable population of detainees,” the Department of Homeland Security acknowledges.
DHS’s inspector general found that some of FOBs along the southern border were even inadequate for the officers who stand guard in them. A 2016 report found that six out of the seven bases inspected had trouble providing safe drinking water and had security concerns. At the other one, they found health and safety hazards, including expired extinguishers, uncleanliness, and unsafe driving conditions on the road leading to it. It’s unclear whether the FOB where the girl stayed was among those inspected, because the names of the specific bases are redacted in the report.
After being screened for health issues, the girl was offered food and water, and access to the restrooms, DHS said. She and her family then waited for nearly eight hours at the base to be transported to a Border Patrol station a few hours away. Conditions at these facilities, though designed to hold immigrants, are harsh, as has been widely documented; immigrants call them hieleras, or “ice boxes” due to their cold temperatures.
The girl never stayed at the Border Patrol station, though. She was vomiting by the time she was loaded into the bus that would take her there and had stopped breathing by the time she arrived, an hour and a half later, according to DHS.
An ambulance arrived shortly after, and she was flown to a hospital by helicopter. Less than 24 hours later, she was dead.