US government watchdog to probe child's death after border arrest

Central American migrants, travelling in a caravan, are taken into custody by US border patrol officers after crossing the Mexico-US border fence to San Diego County.
Central American migrants, travelling in a caravan, are taken into custody by US border patrol officers after crossing the Mexico-US border fence to San Diego County.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The US Department of Homeland Security's internal watchdog will investigate the death of a seven-year-old Guatemalan migrant which occurred after she was detained by US border agents, officials said on Friday (Dec 14).

The Trump administration defended the treatment of the child, identified as Jakelin Caal by a Guatemalan official, and said there was no indication that she had any medical problems until several hours after she and her father were taken into US custody on the evening of Dec 6.

The Guatemalan government had earlier identified the girl as Jackeline Caal.

Initial news reports said Caal died of dehydration and exhaustion.

On Friday, US officials said she had suffered cardiac arrest, brain swelling and liver failure.

The Office of the Inspector-General, which looks into accusations of misconduct by public employees, will take the lead on the case, a DHS official told reporters on Friday, on condition of anonymity.

News of the child's death has revived criticism of President Donald Trump's hardline immigration policies from immigrant advocates and Democrats in Congress. Democratic Senator Dick Durbin on Friday repeated his call on Twitter for DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to resign, citing the case.

Nielsen described the death as "heart-wrenching."

"My heart goes out to the family, all of DHS. This is just a very sad example of the dangers of this journey," she said in an interview with Fox News Channel.


Record numbers of parents traveling with children are being apprehended while trying to cross the US border with Mexico. In November, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers detained 25,172 members of "family units," the highest monthly number ever recorded, the agency said.

The Trump administration has tried to deter people from crossing the border between ports of entry illegally to seek asylum, while also restricting access to official ports of entry. That has created a potential months-long wait for migrants hoping to claim asylum in the United States, including those who came as part of a large "caravan" of Central Americans this year.


Caal and her father were detained after arriving on Dec 6 at around 9.15pm local time at the Antelope Wells port of entry, in a remote part of New Mexico, along with a group of over 160 migrants, US officials said.

Four Border Patrol agents were on scene, and no medical staff were present, said a CBP official, on condition of anonymity.

"These aliens had travelled through Mexico for some period of time before they reached us," the CBP official said. "They were actually in our custody for a very short time."

A border agent observed Caal and her father, who Guatemalan officials said is 29 years old, and asked him around 20 questions as part of an initial medical screening. Caal's father checked "no" on a form asking if the child had any illnesses, the DHS official said.

The form was provided in English, and the interview with the father was conducted in Spanish, the CBP official said.

"The questions were asked, the observations were made, the father was there, and there was no indication that she had any health conditions," the official said.

The Guatemalan foreign ministry said in a statement that Caal's parents' native tongue is Q'eqchi', a Mayan language. The father's level of Spanish fluency was not immediately known, but he told Guatemalan officials that he felt more comfortable speaking Q'eqchi', the foreign ministry said.

"You have to take this into account. They speak Spanish but they don't understand Spanish 100 per cent," said Tekandi Paniagua, a Guatemalan consular official in Del Rio, Texas who spoke to the father on Saturday and Monday, in an interview with Reuters.

At around 4.30am on Dec 7, around seven hours after first arriving at the border, Caal and her father boarded a bus for the Lordsburg border station in New Mexico, about 153km away. While they were waiting for the bus, they had access to water and restrooms, the CBP official said.

Just before the bus departed at 5am, the father told agents that his daughter was vomiting. An agent on the bus told the Lordsburg station to prepare to provide emergency medical care, and by the time the bus arrived at the station at 6.30am, Caal was not breathing. She was revived by Border Patrol medical technicians twice, and emergency services arrived at around 6.40am.

Caal was taken to the Providence Children's Hospital in El Paso, Texas from Lordsburg at 7.45am by helicopter. There, a brain scan revealed swelling and the girl was diagnosed with liver failure. She died early in the morning on Dec 8, with her father at the hospital, the CBP official said.