Torres Small Calls For Complete Investigations Into Migrant Child Deaths

May 14, 2019

Credit Felipe Alonzo-Gomez / Family photo

Commentary: Today, U.S. Representatives Xochitl Torres Small (NM-02) and Raul Ruiz (CA-32) led a group of 17 Congressional Caucus Members in a letter urging U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan to provide an update on the investigations into the December 2018 deaths of Jakelin Caal Maquin and Felipe Gómez Alonzo while in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Nearly five months later, DHS has neither completed the investigations nor has it given any indication as to when it will.

Credit Jakelin Caal Maquin / Family photo

“In the wake of Jakelin Caal Maquin’s and Felipe Gomez Alonzo’s tragic deaths, I called for immediate investigations so that we could learn from these tragedies, work together, and prevent them from happening again,” said Rep. Xochitl Torres Small.  “Despite circumstances at the border continuing to drastically change and more family units continuing to voluntarily seek asylum, DHS still hasn’t completed these investigations which could shed meaningful light onto the resources needed at the border and prevent these types of deaths from happening again. I’m urging Acting Secretary McAleenan, just as I urged Former Secretary Nielsen, to oversee the completion of the investigations and present the findings to Congress.

“Our federal government must provide a full accounting of the policies and practices that contributed to the deaths of Jakelin and Felipe – innocent children whose lives were cut short in the custody of our federal government,” said Rep. Raul Ruiz, M.D., Chair of the CHC Health Task Force. “I am an emergency medicine physician and humanitarian aid specialist. I know from experience that CBP facilities are under-staffed, underequipped, and unprepared to care for the families in their custody. That is why I am developing legislation, to be introduced in the coming weeks, that will implement humanitarian standards to govern CBP’s treatment of the women, children, and families in their custody and prevent future loss of life.”

In addition to Torres Small and Ruiz, the letter was also signed by Representatives Joaquin Castro (TX-20), Linda T. Sánchez (CA-38), Adriano Espaillat (NY-13), Juan Vargas (CA-51), Ben Ray Luján (NM-03), Nanette Diaz Barragán (CA-44), Nydia Velázquez (NY-07), Jesus G. “Chuy” Garcia (IL-04), Salud O. Carbajal (CA-24), Darren Soto (FL-09), Veronica Escobar (TX-16), Jimmy Gomez (CA-34), Raúl Grijalva (AZ-03), Grace F. Napolitano (CA-32), and Sylvia Garcia (TX-29).

The full text of the letter is available below and HERE:

Dear Acting Secretary McAleenan:

Last December, two migrant children, Jakelin Caal Maquin and Felipe Gómez Alonzo, died while in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). In response, Congress urged the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to conduct thorough investigations into both deaths to fully understand what happened and to address shortfalls the Department may have in its treatment of migrants, particularly vulnerable populations such as children.

Nearly five months after these two tragic deaths, DHS still has not completed the investigations. On March 6, 2019, during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing, when asked about the status of the investigations, then DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen stated that DHS was waiting for the Medical Examiners’ final findings, and that she would continue to engage with the Medical Examiners’ offices to quickly move forward with the investigations.

It has been over a month since Jakelin and Felipe’s autopsy reports were released by the El Paso and New Mexico Medical Examiners, respectively. However, DHS has not given any indication of progress toward finalizing the investigations.

In your new capacity as Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, you are now responsible for ensuring that these investigations are completed and reported to Congress expeditiously. We expect you to honor the Department’s commitment to persistently work with the Medical Examiners’ offices, the CBP Office of Professional Responsibility, and the DHS Office of Inspector General to prevent any further delays. In your response to this letter, please provide an update on the investigations and a timeline for their completion and submission to Congress.

As you know, we are experiencing unprecedented levels of family units and unaccompanied children voluntarily presenting at the southern border. Therefore, the results of these investigations are of utmost importance for CBP to incorporate the lessons learned into its policies and procedures and to guide legislative efforts to provide appropriate humanitarian standards. We must understand as soon as possible what actions could have prevented Felipe and Jakelin’s deaths to ensure these tragedies never occur again.

Furthermore, we want to emphasize that in most instances, asylum seeking families like Felipe’s and Jakelin’s are fleeing from uninhabitable living conditions and look to the U.S. in hopes of survival. We must ensure that the conditions in which asylum seekers are treated in the U.S. reflect our nation’s values.

Thank you for your prompt attention into this matter, we look forward to receiving the results of the investigations in a timely manner.