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At Least Two Migrant Children From Honduras Have Died in US Custody This Year

The Honduran foreign minister called for “exhaustive investigation of the case” to “apply the full weight of the law.”

Cots rest in a former Bassett Middle School library set up as a dormitory in a temporary shelter for processed migrants in El Paso, Texas on May 10, 2023.

After the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Friday confirmed that a 17-year-old Honduran in the United States without a parent or guardian died in government custody earlier this week, CBS News revealed another recent death.

CBS News learned that a 4-year-old child from Honduras in HHS custody died in March after being hospitalized for cardiac arrest in Michigan,” according to the outlet. “The child, whose death has not been previously reported, was ‘medically fragile,’ HHS said in a notification to lawmakers at the time.”

Meanwhile, CNN obtained the congressional notice for the 17-year-old, who was under the care of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and placed at Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services in Safety Harbor, Florida, on May 5.

As CNN detailed:

The teen was taken to Mease Countryside Hospital in Safety Harbor Wednesday morning after being found unconscious. He was pronounced dead an hour later despite resuscitation attempts.

The minor’s parents and sponsor have been notified, according to the notice. An investigation by a medical examiner is underway and ORR said it will continue to receive more information on the death from the care provider.

CBS News reported that a U.S. official said there was “no altercation of any kind” involved in the teenage boy’s death.

Honduras’ foreign minister, Eduardo Enrique Reina, wrote in a series of tweets Thursday night that his government “regrets and offers its condolences for the death of the 17-year-old,” whom he identified.

The Honduran government “is in contact with the family and has requested that ORR and HHS carry out an exhaustive investigation of the case… and, if there is any responsibility, apply the full weight of the law,” he said, adding that the death “underscores the importance of working together on the bilateral migration agenda on the situation of unaccompanied minors, to find solutions.”

HHS said Friday that it “is deeply saddened by this tragic loss and our heart goes out to the family, with whom we are in touch.”

The ORR Division of Health for Unaccompanied Children “is reviewing all clinical details of this case, including all inpatient healthcare records,” which “is standard practice for any situation involving the death of an unaccompanied child or a serious health outcome,” HHS continued. “A medical examiner investigation is underway. Due to privacy and safety reasons, ORR cannot share further information on individual cases of children who have been in our care.”

The Tampa Bay Times reported that Bill Pellan, director of investigations for the District Six Medical Examiner Office, “said further details of the boy’s death could not be released due to the ongoing investigation” while “the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office confirmed the active case and declined to release records.”

The newspaper also noted that the death “is complicated by an ongoing dispute between the federal government and Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ administration, which in December 2021 announced that Florida will no longer license shelters that house migrant children.”

DeSantis, a Republican expected to challenge former President Donald Trump for their party’s 2024 presidential nomination, has gained national attention for his hostility toward migrants, from a widely condemned bill he signed into law on Wednesday to his role in flying South Americans to Martha’s Vineyard last year.

Although the DeSantis administration’s shelter decision enables Florida facilities “to operate without a license or state oversight,” the Times explained Friday, HHS said that ORR still requires the sites to meet licensing standards and conducts its own monitoring and evaluation “to ensure the safety and well-being of all children in our care.”

The newly revealed deaths are rare, relative to the number of unaccompanied minors that enter the country. According to CBS: “Over an eight-month span in 2018 and 2019, six children died in U.S. custody or shortly after being released, including a 10-year-old girl who died while in the care of ORR. Her death was the first of a child in U.S. custody since 2010, officials said at the time.”

Reporting on both Honduran children’s deaths comes as the U.S. government rolls out controversial migrant policies in response to the expiration of Title 42, which was invoked by the administrations of both Trump and Democratic President Joe Biden to deport millions of asylum-seekers under the pretext of the Covid-19 pandemic.

After Biden’s policies were announced last month, the International Refugee Assistance Project said that it “welcomes the expansion of family reunification parole programs and refugee processing in the Americas, but strongly opposes doing so as a trade-off for limiting the legal rights of people seeking asylum in the United States.”

On Thursday, the ACLU, the civil liberties group’s Northern California branch, the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, and National Immigrant Justice Center filed a legal challenge to the asylum ban in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

“The Biden administration’s new ban places vulnerable asylum-seekers in grave danger and violates U.S. asylum laws. We’ve been down this road before with Trump,” said Katrina Eiland, managing attorney with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. “The asylum bans were cruel and illegal then, and nothing has changed now.”

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