Guatemalan toddler who died after US border detention in ‘inhumane conditions’ had multiple diseases

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Maria Sacchetti
Wednesday 03 July 2019 12:32 BST
Texas congressman Joaquin Castro films migrants in 'cramped' cell at El Paso detention centre

A Guatemalan toddler who spent several days in US Border Patrol custody this spring died of complications related to “multiple intestinal and respiratory infectious diseases”, according to medical examiner's report.

Wilmer Josue Ramirez Vasquez, who was two-and-a-half years old, died on 14 May after several weeks in a hospital in El Paso, Texas.

The medical examiner’s office in El Paso County said tests detected influenza, parasites, E coli, a food-borne illness that produces severe cramping, diarrhoea and vomiting, and other pathogens in the child’s system.

The toddler died weeks after US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released him and his mother at a hospital.

The autopsy report comes a day after congressional Democrats made a tumultuous visit to Border Patrol facilities in El Paso and Clint, Texas and said they differed with Homeland Security and demonstrators over conditions inside.

CBP apprehended Wilmer and his mother on 3 April near the Paso del Norte International Bridge in El Paso, days after now-acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan warned that holding facilities in the city and others along the US-Mexico border were at a “breaking point”.

Three days later, US Customs and Border Protection said the child’s mother informed agents that he was sick and they took him to a local emergency room.

The medical examiner’s report said Wilmer arrived in “respiratory distress”. The child was then transferred to Providence Children’s Hospital in El Paso, where he died.

Lawyers supporting Wilmer’s family said the boy and his mother were “subjected to inhumane conditions” during their three days in Border Patrol custody, “including exposure to extreme temperatures, being forced to sleep outside on the ground, and other terrible conditions of confinement”.

They called for an independent investigation into why the boy was not taken to the hospital earlier.

“Wilmer’s family and supporting counsel remain committed to determining whether earlier medical intervention would have saved Wilmer’s life,” said lawyers Taylor Levy and Bridget Cambria. “The autopsy report indicates that this baby suffered from numerous intestinal and respiratory infections that, when compounded, led to his death.”

Bert Johannsen, an El Paso paediatrician who has treated hundreds of migrant children, said the autopsy report showed that Wilmer had several parasites, spread through fecal-oral contact, that are common in Central America but not in the United States.

The parasites are treatable if diagnosed and treated quickly, Dr Johannsen said, but he questions whether the CBP’s contract health care workers are looking for them when screening children at the border.

“If you bring me a kid from El Paso who has diarrhoea, I’m thinking viral gastroenteritis. But if I get a kid from Guatemala, I have to start thinking these other bacteria, parasites, cryptosporidium,” said Dr Johannsen, who volunteers to care for migrant children at El Paso’s Annunciation House shelters.

Initially, Guatemalan consular officials reported that Wilmer appeared to have developed a form of pneumonia, but that is not explicitly mentioned in the report.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus toured Border Patrol facilities in Texas earlier this week after lawyers described “appalling” conditions in the Clint facility, including hundreds of sick and dirty children.

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Democrats also reported crowding in the El Paso facility, where they said several hundred people are still detained.

The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general issued a new report warning about prolonged detentions and overflowing cells during the week of 10 June in the Rio Grande Valley in southwestern Texas.

Several children and adults have died after being apprehended at the border or attempting to cross, including four children last week.

The Trump administration has said it is grappling with record numbers of families and unaccompanied minors who are surrendering at the southern border and seeking asylum.

Officials say the asylum claims are largely false and that people are travelling with children because they are likely to be released to await a deportation hearing.

Donald Trump has urged Congress to pass stricter asylum laws and close legal “loopholes” that prevent them from detaining families longer to process their cases and deport them.

Officials also have pressured Mexico into blocking migrants’ routes to the border.

The Homeland Security Department has said it expects a 30 percent drop in border apprehensions in June, a potential decline it attributed to Mexico’s expanded crackdown on Central American migrants and the expansion of an experimental Trump administration programme that requires asylum seekers to wait outside US territory for their immigration court hearings.

The White House struck a deal with Mexico last month to increase enforcement after threatening to impose tariffs on that country’s goods.

Most people apprehended crossing the border illegally are families or unaccompanied minors from Central America, and advocates say they are fleeing violence and severe poverty in search of a better life.

Children, many younger than 12, accounted for about 40 percent of apprehensions in May.

12-year-old migrant girl speaks to attorney about poor care at detention centre in Clint, Texas

Department of Homeland Security officials expanded care for children after two young Guatemalan children died after being taken into custody in December.

They require health screenings of all children and have sent medics and equipment to the border to quickly check new arrivals.

Border Patrol officials said earlier this week that children receive food and care but said their facilities are not meant to hold anyone for long periods, especially children.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said one woman in a border facility said she was told by Border Patrol officers to drink out of a toilet.

A Department of Homeland Security official, who was not authorised to discuss the visit and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said no Border Patrol agent would allow that and there was water available.

The Washington Post

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