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Lawmakers Demand Answers in Death of 7-Year-Old Girl in Border Patrol Custody

Asylum seeker Jakelin Caal Maquín died two days after she and her father presented themselves at the border.

Outrage is mounting over the death of a 7-year-old indigenous Guatemalan girl in Border Patrol custody, as lawmakers demand answers for the conditions that led Jakelin Caal Maquín to die after being detained at the US-Mexico border. Maquin died on December 8, two days after she and her father presented themselves at the border alongside 161 other Central American asylum seekers. She had been held in detention for more than eight hours when she began to have seizures. Border Patrol agents brought the girl to the hospital after her body temperature spiked to 105.7 degrees. The 7-year-old died of dehydration, shock and liver failure at an El Paso hospital less than 24 hours later. We speak with Clara Long, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, and Greg Grandin, prize-winning author and professor of Latin American history at New York University. His latest piece in The Nation, co-authored with Elizabeth Oglesby, is titled “Who Killed Jakelin Caal Maquín at the US Border?”


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show with the mounting outrage over the death of a 7-year-old indigenous Guatemalan girl in Border Patrol custody, as lawmakers demand answers for the conditions that led Jakelin Caal Maquín to die after being detained at the US-Mexico border. Maquín died on December 8th, two days after she and her father presented themselves at the US-Mexico border alongside 161 other Central American asylum seekers. She had been held in detention for more than eight hours when she began to have seizures. Border Patrol agents brought the girl to the hospital after her body temperature spiked to 105.7 degrees. The 7-year-old died of dehydration, shock and liver failure at an El Paso hospital less than 24 hours later.

Democratic Congressmember Joaquin Castro is now calling on the head of Customs and Border Protection to resign for failing to promptly disclose the girl’s death. CBP chief Kevin McAleenan testified before Congress three days after Jakelin died in Border Patrol custody, but did not mention her death in his testimony.

AMY GOODMAN: A group of Democratic lawmakers retraced Jakelin Maquín’s steps on Tuesday, touring the Lordsburg Border Patrol station in New Mexico, where she was held shortly before her death. This is Houston Congressmember Al Green.

REP. AL GREEN: What I saw in this facility is unbelievable and unconscionable. The SPCA would not allow animals to be treated the way human beings are being treated in this facility. This is an humanitarian crisis that is being treated as a law enforcement circumstance. The humanitarian crisis has got to receive the attention that it merits, and I place the blame where it belongs. The tone and tenor of all of this starts at the top: the president of the United States of America.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Houston Congressmember Al Green.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Here in New York, Greg Grandin is with us, the prize-winning author, historian of Latin American history at New York University, his forthcoming book, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. His latest piece for The Nation is titled “Who Killed Jakelin Caal Maquín at the US Border?” And in Oakland, California, we’re joined by Clara Long, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. She wrote an article earlier this week for the Human Rights Watch blog on Jakelin’s death.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! We’re going to begin with you, Clara. I mean, this story of what happened to this little indigenous Guatemalan girl, who traveled up from Guatemala, mainly by bus, with her dad, comes over the border, a remote area of New Mexico, put in CBP custody — Customs and Border Patrol custody — and she gets — she’s put on this bus, and very quickly she gets extremely sick. She’s vomiting. Her father tells, according to reports, CBP. Tell us what happened then. Describe this journey, as you understand it.

CLARA LONG: Well, thanks, Amy. First of all, I mean, I think that an independent — an impartial outside investigation is urgently needed. What we have now are facts as they’ve been reported. And as you say, she got on a bus. You know, we understand that at that point she began to vomit and to spike a very high fever, and that the bus sort of continued on its way between the Antelope Wells Border Patrol station to another location in New Mexico that was a bit closer to medical care, but even there, when she arrived, receiving — you know, received emergency medical care and then was ultimately transferred via helicopter to a children’s hospital. You know, she, essentially, did not recover from this really serious health crisis.

You know, in this case, I don’t think we yet know what’s happened. And, in fact, the family has asked the media to stop speculating about the cause of death until an official autopsy report comes in. What’s been shocking to me is that the first statements from the government said that this little girl hadn’t eaten for several days. The family said that’s not at all true, that she had had access to food during the journey. You know, I think there are a lot of facts still to find out here. But what we can sort of already keep in mind is the context. And I think — you know, there was a great op-ed in the L.A. Times yesterday by a former Border Patrol agent who said essentially that. You know, “We don’t know what happened in this case, but” — that this Border Patrol agent said, and we found in our research. “But what we do know is this agency has a culture of indifference and of neglect and of abuse of migrants.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Clara Long, you’re right that we still don’t know all of the facts of what happened here, but this whole issue of the fact that this was an indigenous migrant who not only didn’t speak English, but his primary language wasn’t even Spanish. It was a Mayan language. So, could you talk about the whole issue of, at the same time that the government is attempting to interdict and detain all these migrants, the resources available to it to be able to even communicate with some of those who are coming over is severely lacking?

CLARA LONG: Right. I mean, that’s a legitimate challenge, to be able to deal effectively with language diversity. You know, what we’ve seen a lot in our research, especially about the processing of asylum seekers, is that the Border Patrol purports to conduct very important interviews, like these health screenings or asylum screenings, in Spanish with people who do not speak that language, and that there is, essentially, no regard for being able to communicate effectively with asylum seekers. So that’s completely of a piece with, you know, what we understand is accepted practice in the agency, and it’s hugely problematic. Of course —

AMY GOODMAN: Forget Spanish for a minute. Apparently, at least according to reports and her lawyer, he was forced to sign, on the border, something verifying her health in English.

CLARA LONG: Correct, yeah, right, I mean, which is even that much farther afield from what is true communication. I mean, you know, the CBP commissioner, in that testimony that you mentioned, where he didn’t comply with his legal obligation to inform Congress of a death in custody — of a child, no less — also said something very telling, which is that the CBP installations on the border are inappropriate for the humanitarian crisis that the United States is dealing with here. And I think people should actually be taking that thread and thinking about exactly what the congressperson mentioned in the clip that started the segment: Why should this little girl be in a jail-like system in the first place? The United States can do this better. It can do it from a humanitarian perspective, receiving people with dignity and humanity, screening them, making sure that they’re well taken care of. But treating people like criminals will lead, unfortunately, to these kind of outcomes.

AMY GOODMAN: You also have the head of CBP, as Juan was just saying, testifying before Congress days after she died, but not mentioning that this little 7-year-old died in US custody.

CLARA LONG: Right. And that’s — you know, it seems very likely that that is in direct violation of the law, essentially. Congress told DHS, you know, “We want to hear about any death in your custody within 24 hours.” And that didn’t happen in this case, so, you know — which raises, to me, really serious questions about whether this agency is even under the rule of law. Does it even — you know, what laws does it think applies to it and to its operations?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring in Greg Grandin, historian of Latin American history. Your reaction when you heard of this case, and the research that you’ve done in terms of Guatemalan migration in general?

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, I did a little research in the past on the region where Jakelin was from. Q’eqchi’ — she was Q’eqchi’-Maya, one of the major Mayan groups in Guatemala. And if you wanted to do a history of 20th century displacement caused by political repression, caused by the expansion of capitalism, extractive capitalism, caused by one after another failed Washington policies, you can do no better than look at the history of the Q’eqchi’-Maya.

In the end of the 19th century, early 1900s, they were — tended to be grouped in the northern highlands in Guatemala. The coming of coffee capitalism, financed by New York US banks, began pushing and basically stealing, dispossessing, massive amounts of land, turning Q’eqchi’s into agricultural laborers or then pushing them into the highlands, down into the lowlands — not the highlands, the lowlands, so the Caribbean or to the rainforest, where they settled new communities. And there, they ran into — they got caught up in other forms of extractive capital: logging and oil and now African palm. I mean, this is a region that is caught in the vortex of global capitalism. And a lot of the policies — we could talk about the drug policy, Washington’s war on drugs, which has devastated these communities; the emphasis on African palm, biofuels, which have devastated these communities.

And so, the history in the 20th century, up to the beginning of the 21st century, is an expansion of the radius of migration. And these are now people who — I mean, she was from a community that was recently created, a refugee community in the lowlands that was fleeing from repression and violence from an earlier cycle of extraction and political terror. And it’s all caught up in the history that a lot of listeners of Democracy Now! will know: the overthrow of Jacobo Árbenz in 1954 in Guatemala, CIA’s full — first full-spectrum coup, which had baleful consequences on any number of levels, including leading to a 36-year civil war, a genocide against Mayan Indians. And the Q’eqchi’, her people, her community, bore an enormous amount of violence in that genocide.

So, there’s ways in which her death, this death of this 7-year-old girl — just turned 7 a couple of days before she crossed to the United States — kind of encapsulates this history, not — of a humanitarian crisis that is largely caused by Washington, not that Washington has to respond to it in a better way. It’s largely caused by not just the — and it’s not just the Trump administration. This has deep, deep history in US relations with Central America.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to turn to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s comments about Jakelin’s death. She was interviewed Friday onFox & Friends.”

HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: This is just a very sad example of the dangers of this journey. This family chose to cross illegally. What happened here was they were 90 — about 90 miles away from where we could process them. They came in such a large crowd that it took our Border Patrol folks a couple times to get them all. We gave immediate care. We’ll continue to look into the situation. But again, I cannot stress how dangerous this journey is when migrants choose to come here illegally.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Kirstjen Nielsen saying —


AMY GOODMAN: And this is repeated over and over by the Trump administration, saying it’s the families that are putting their children in danger —


AMY GOODMAN: — by simply making this journey. Talk about the extremity of what these families face.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, look, the Trump administration is vile, but this history predates the Trump administration. And my co-author of the piece that you mentioned, Liz Oglesby, has written a lot about this, the way that, since starting in the 1990s, pretty much concordant — corresponding to the signing of NAFTA, the Clinton administration, Bill Clinton, began to militarize the border, making relatively safe urban passages — shutting them down and forcing migrants into the desert. This was intentional. Clinton officials said we can use geography as an ally, meaning we could use the torments of the desert in order — as deterrents to keep migrants out. That didn’t happen. The desperation, largely caused by economic policies like NAFTA, continued to force, displace hundreds of thousands, millions of peasants off their land. They had nowhere to go. They came to the United States.

And all the militarization of the border did was it raised the cost — it ended seasonal migration. It changed the nature of migration, because once you did make it into the United States, you were captured. You couldn’t go back and forth. You had to stay here. So, increasingly, the demographic profile of migration changed. You came with your whole family, rather than a worker would go work, come back, go and work. So, in some ways, the militarization of the border didn’t stop migration. It actually created a captive, undocumented, vulnerable population of tens of millions of people in the United States, that is one aspect of this interlocking set of policies that have just been catastrophic for North America.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Clara Long, I’d like to ask you: Human Rights Watch issued a report earlier this year talking about the inhumane, jail-like conditions that many of these — especially the asylum seekers — migrants who crossed the border, or the asylum seekers, are being put in; could you talk about what you would see as a better solution, given the significant numbers, the increases, that have been occurring of migration? How would the government better be able to handle this, in your opinion, or should be able to handle this?

CLARA LONG: Right. I mean, first, I would say, you know, the government has thrown an enormous amount of resources at controlling and cracking down — militarizing, as Greg says — the border. You know, those resources could be better deployed. I’ve been in several of these border jails this year even. And, you know, they are very cold, highly air-conditioned. Children are kept in concrete cells with basically nothing to sleep on many times, you know, inadequate access to clean water, cold, you know, small amounts of ramen, often food that people can’t eat, and this sort of feeling that they can’t ask for anything or they will be punished. You know, the abusive behavior by agents is widespread and systematic.

You know, I would add also, you have large groups, like the one that Jakelin crossed in, that are perhaps increasingly crossing between ports of entry exactly because they cannot get through ports of entry, you know, under a policy, started under the Obama administration, of metering people who are going through ports of entry. We heard about that — you know, we’ve been hearing about this as congresspeople are going down to, say, Tijuana to walk people across the border and ensure that CBPaccepts them. That shouldn’t be necessary. Under US law, there is a way to go to the port of entry and turn yourself in and ask for asylum. But what the Trump administration has said, across the entire border, is that it won’t accept more than a couple people a day. And that’s resulted in huge backlogs, which have caused people to cross, again, in increasingly remote and harsh places.

AMY GOODMAN: And there’s a very serious question about whether this is even legal, what the Trump administration is doing. When Democracy Now! was down there on the border, we saw people that were there day after day after day. And just in the last few days, Congressmembers Barragán and Gomez were on the border. They got Maria up with her family, who famously was tear-gassed holding her children the other day, one of the Honduran immigrants. And they had to take her in and demand, hour after hour — they were held for something like seven to nine hours before they could come in.

I just want to — an interesting fact: The federal judge in the Washington, DC, case, who just delayed the sentencing for Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has played a major role in challenging President Trump’s immigration policies. In August, District Judge Emmet Sullivan, who’s African-American, judge who was first named by Reagan, then George H.W. Bush and then President Clinton, expressed outrage when he learned the Trump administration had used an airplane to spirit away a migrant El Salvadoran mother and her daughter who were fleeing persecution in El Salvador. The woman was fleeing domestic violence there. Judge Sullivan ordered the government turn that plane around, either now or when it lands, turn that plane around and bring those people back to the United States. “It’s outrageous,” he said. He even threatened to bring criminal contempt proceedings against then-US Attorney General Jeff Sessions if she wasn’t returned.

Greg Grandin, the opposition has been going on for a long time, but the significance of what’s happening?

GREG GRANDIN: Well, first let me say that the Border Patrol is a rogue agency, since its foundation in 1924. It’s arguably the most politicized, most abusive agency. It never had anything equivalent that the CIA had in the 1970s with the Church Committee report or Rockefeller Committee report looking at it, leading to some degree of reform. This is the front line of some of the worst elements of US culture, white supremacy, racism. It’s had links to the KKK since its inception. There’s a reporter, John Crewdson, who wrote in the 1970s and 1980s of abuses in the Border Patrol that are as bad or worse than anything that we’re reading about here. This is a long, long history that predates the Trump administration.

So, on the one level, it’s enforcement, border enforcement, and the brutality and the way that that brutality and violence feeds into the nativism in this country, which has now found political expression in Donald Trump. It’s the more structural economic and security policies that Washington has been promoting, especially since the 1990s economic liberalization, which has destroyed subsistence farming in these regions, the promotion of mining and other extractive industries, biofuels, which have turned things like Polochic Valley, which is where many Q’eqchi’ live, or the Aguán Valley in Honduras into war zones where people are fleeing. It’s an exodous of biblical proportions. The mayor of the town where Jakelin is from says in the last couple of months he’s — he used the word “exodus.” He said hundreds of families have left with their children. They can’t feed themselves. There’s no money, and there’s no food.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mentioned the Border Patrol, and yet the size of the Border Patrol continues to skyrocket, right?

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, yeah. It used to be, from Carter through Reagan through Bush I and Bush II and Obama and Clinton, the idea was that you would get security first and then have some kind of one-off amnesty. Now, and then — I mean, you had Chuck Schumer agreeing that security was the number one issue. I mean, nobody’s been talking about an amnesty now, right? Now, it’s just — the bipartisan buy-in to the notion that the border has to be sealed is one of the sources of the moral crisis in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to end with Ruben Garcia. He’s the director of the shelter in El Paso, Texas, where Jakelin’s father is now staying. Garcia read from a statement issued by the attorney for Jakelin’s father.

RUBEN GARCIA: 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. … Jakelin’s father took care of Jakelin, made sure she was fed and had sufficient water. She and her father sought asylum from Border Patrol as soon as they crossed the border. She had not suffered from a lack of water or food prior to approaching the border.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ruben Garcia, speaking at the house where Jakelin’s father took refuge. We’ll continue to follow the story. Clara Long, thanks so much for being with us, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, and Greg Grandin, prize-winning author and professor of Latin American history at New York University. We’ll link to your piece, co-authored with Elizabeth Oglesby, “Who Killed Jakelin Caal Maquín at the US Border?”

When we come back, 140 children are still separated from their families in US custody. We’ll speak with a Harvard psychologist who started a petition demanding the media ramp up coverage of the crisis like it does when Americans are held hostage overseas. Stay with us.