NENTON (Guatemala)/WASHINGTON • Migrant children will receive more thorough medical checks after an eight-year-old Guatemalan boy died in United States custody earlier this week, the US government said, even as his mother expressed grief and despair over his death.
Felipe Gomez Alonzo, who died on Monday, and his father, Agustin, 47, came from the western municipality of Nenton in Huehuetenango province, said Guatemalan Foreign Ministry spokesman Marta Larra. The pair trekked to the Mexico-US border, joining thousands of others who have left their remote area.
Gomez, who belonged to a family of indigenous Maya, was the second child to die this month in US custody after crossing from Mexico, following the death of Jakelin Caal, a seven-year-old girl also from Guatemala, early this month.
"I'm sad and in despair over the death of my son," the boy's mother Catarina Alonzo, 32, told Reuters by telephone from her home in the tiny village of Yalambojoch. She spoke through a translator because of her limited Spanish.
The latest fatality prompted sharp criticism from some Democrats, and US Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced policy changes on Wednesday aimed at preventing future deaths of children in custody.
All children in Border Patrol custody have been given a "thorough medical screening" and, moving forward, all children will receive "a more thorough hands-on assessment" as soon as possible after being apprehended, whether or not the adult with them asks for one, she said in a statement.
Gomez's parents, who speak a Maya language called Chuj and little Spanish, have requested an autopsy to be done as quickly as possible so that their son's body can be repatriated to Guatemala, Ms Larra said. The results are expected in about a week, she added.
It is now clear that migrants, particularly children, are increasingly facing medical challenges and harbouring illness caused by their long and dangerous journey.
MS KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, US Department of Homeland Security Secretary.
The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency has not released an official cause of death.
Ms Nielsen said the death of migrant children in US custody is rare.
"It is now clear that migrants, particularly children, are increasingly facing medical challenges and harbouring illness caused by their long and dangerous journey," she said, noting she would travel to the border later this week to observe the medical screenings and conditions at Border Patrol stations.
Gomez and his father were detained on Dec 18 in El Paso, Texas, for illegally entering the country, the CBP agency said.
On Monday, he was treated for fever and cold at a local hospital and discharged, but returned a few hours later feeling nauseous. He died later that day.
US House of Representatives Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called for the Department of Homeland Security internal watchdog, the Inspector-General's office, to investigate Gomez's death.