Keeping Detained Kids Alive

Terry H. Schwadron

Dec. 28, 2018

It turns out that 2,100 migrants have been arriving daily at the southwest border, most funneled through the 25 ports of entry. About 60% are families and minors traveling alone. Last month, federal agents arrested 25,172 families, most of whom were fleeing violence and poverty.

We are not set up to see these numbers, even in detention camps and tent cities. So, in retrospect, it seems inevitable that we would see deaths, in particular juvenile deaths.

Yet, in the staredown that is the government shutdown, the central issue is money for the Wall itself, not for treatment of those individuals, particularly children, who are caught up in the process.

The 8-year-old Guatemalan boy who died on Christmas Eve in U.S. custody had been moved among at least four crowded facilities at the border over the six days from his apprehension until his death, evidence that the surge of Central American families reaching the southwest border has overwhelmed the border authorities. He was the second migrant child under 10 to die this month.

In explanation of the death to Congress on Wednesday, Kirstjen M. Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, said the “dramatic increase” had pushed the system to “a breaking point.” She said she had ordered her agency to bolster medical screenings of children at the southwest border and had enlisted the medical corps of Coast Guard to assist. The secretary also said that she would travel to the border this week to personally observe the screenings.

Most of the circumstances surrounding the boy’s death remain unknown. It is not clear whether his health deteriorated because of neglect by personnel in the facilities, the perilous journey, or a combination of these factors.Nevertheless, the secretary underscored that the brunt of blame for the deaths should be on the migrant parents who undertook a dangerous journey with children, knowing that they would face all sorts of issues about their well-being. Of course, critics of this column point out that there are occasional deaths of Americans as a result of illegal immigration, but somehow that doesn’t square our responsibilities for those we keep in detention.

Even if the Wall were built, the same number of people would come through the ports of entry as do now — if not more — raising the effectiveness of our detention system.

Some of the questions being asked by Congress are expected: Why did we start in on a policy of separating children from families if we were not ready to handle the numbers? Why are these deaths a good reflection of American values? Why is the president talking about a Wall, and not also about protecting children in American custody?

Clearly, Nielsen has a difficult assignment to carry out — stopping all illegal immigration across a long border that is probed regularly by unsavory coyote guides who know the system’s soft spots, with more and more migrants who find their home country so dangerous to remain that they risk the hazards of the walk north.

But the deaths also made me wonder how many deaths are occurring on the Mexican side of the border, where our asylum procedures now are forcing families to stay for weeks without adequate food, shelter or safety. How many child deaths are occurring back the neighborhoods in Honduras and Guatemala that prompt the trek north?

The New York Times published an interesting set of graphics this week that show exactly where we already have walls or fencing or some other security in place. As this federal government shutdown continues over the future of funds for the Wall, it is a very useful and informative approach.

We lack an equivalent set of graphics that show exactly what happens to families. Instead, procedurally, the numbers alone are making this a chaotic process.

“This crisis is exacerbated by the increase in persons who are entering our custody suffering from severe respiratory illnesses or exhibit some other illness upon apprehension,” Nielsen said. “Given the remote locations of their illegal crossing and the lack of resources, it is even more difficult for our personnel to be first responders.”

The Guatemalan boy dies after being diagnosed with a cold and a high feverin New Mexico. Earlier, a 7-year-old girl also from Guatemala died of dehydration and septic shock two days after she was taken into custody with her father. The recent fatalities are the first child deaths in more than a decade, according to Nielsen. As of Tuesday, Border Patrol agents have started conducting secondary medical checks on all children in CBP custody, including unaccompanied minors and those part of family units traveling with other family members or legal guardians.

Under current law, non-Mexican unaccompanied children cannot be released or removed from the U.S. — they are turned over to Health and Human Services for placement. While family units are typically released into the interior while they await asylum proceedings.

One can only hope that the approach to settling the outstanding issues over the Wall will include a wider look at those hurt in the process.





Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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Terry Schwadron

Terry Schwadron

Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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