EL PASO – The family of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died after being taken into the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol asked Saturday for the public to cease speculating on what caused the death until an investigation into the tragedy is complete, but also disputed reports that she had gone for days without food or water before entering federal custody.
The child, Jakelin Caal Maquin, and her father, Nery Gilberto Caal Cuz, were apprehended with a large group of undocumented immigrants near Antelope Wells, New Mexico, on December 6 shortly after 9 p.m. About eight hours later, Caal Cuz told agents his daughter was vomiting while the pair was on a Border Patrol transit bus. Agents alerted the station to prepare to administer care but her condition worsened and her temperature eventually reached about 105 degrees. She was flown to a hospital in El Paso where she died at about 12:30 a.m. on December 8, according to a statement from Customs and Border Protection.
Caal Maquin’s body has left El Paso and will be taken to Laredo where Guatemalan consular officials will assist in transporting her back to that country, Ruben Garcia, the director of El Paso’s Annunciation House, told reporters Saturday afternoon. The shelter received Caal Cuz after his daughter died. He is still in El Paso and has retained a team of lawyers who will help ensure a thorough investigation into the incident is conducted, his lawyers said. The father did not make himself available to reporters.
“The family is seeking an objective and thorough investigation and are asking that investigators will assess this incident within nationally recognized standards for the arrest and custody of children,” attorneys Enrique Moreno, Elena Esparza, Lynn Coyle and Christopher Benoit said in a statement. “The family intends to to assist in such an investigation into the cause and circumstances of Jakelin’s death.”
Caal Maquin’s death has become a lightning rod in the debate over the Trump administration's immigration policies, with immigrant rights groups pointing to the tragedy as a byproduct of the president’s crackdown on asylum-seekers.
“This child’s death was the inevitable result of this administration’s cruel and inhumane border enforcement policies. When you turn away people who are legally seeking asylum at official ports of entry, they attempt to make contact with U.S. officials in remote and dangerous areas, and people die,” the ACLU of New Mexico said after Caal Maquin’s death.
The Trump administration has called the situation “tragic” but also said the problem of illegal immigration stems from this country’s policies that lure immigrants north. The president has repeatedly called on Congress to address these so-called loopholes and said it is not to blame for what happened to the child.
In the CBP statement, agency commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan also lamented the loss of life and said the attending agents that were on the scene are “deeply affected and empathize with the father.” But he also said the kinds of treks that many migrants are undergoing to reach the United States make them susceptible to such a tragedy.
“We cannot stress enough the dangers posed by traveling long distances, in crowded transportation, or in the natural elements through remote desert areas without food, water and other supplies,” he said. “No one should risk injury, or even death, by crossing our border unlawfully.”
But Caal Cuz’s legal team is pushing back against claims that his daughter wasn’t taken care of during the journey.
“Prior to going into CBP custody and contrary to the report that Jakelin had ‘not eaten or had any water for several days’, Jakelin had not been crossing the desert for days,” the statement says. “Jakelin’s father took care of Jakelin — made sure she was fed and had sufficient water.”
The attorneys are also questioning why certain CBP forms that immigrants are made to sign, including some that Caal Cuz ultimately signed, are only available in English. The family doesn’t know English and Spanish is their second language while Q'eqchi', an indigenous language used in Central America, is their primary language.
The attorneys also noted that neither the El Paso County medical examiner’s office nor the staff at El Paso’s Providence Children’s Hospital have released any reports on the cause of death.
“Premature and inaccurate statements undermine the integrity of the investigation,” the statement continues.
Garcia, the director of Annunciation House, declined to comment on what drove the family to seek asylum in the United States or what Caal Cuz will do after the investigation is complete. But he did push back on criticism of the asylum-seekers for choosing to make the dangerous journey to the United States in the first place.
“Their lives are beyond impossible. None of us in the United States can imagine,” he said. “It is very difficult for me to hear someone say ‘How could someone bring their child up?’ without first saying ‘What is their reality?’” he said.