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Toddler apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border dies after weeks in hospital

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4 days ago Maria Sacchetti, Robert Moore

a group of people wearing costumes: A child drinks milk from a bottle while being carried by a woman along with a group of Central American migrants walking next to the U.S.-Mexico border fence after they crossed the borderline in El Paso on May 15, 2019. © Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters A child drinks milk from a bottle while being carried by a woman along with a group of Central American migrants walking next to the U.S.-Mexico border fence after they crossed the borderline in El Paso on May 15, 2019.

A 2½-year-old Guatemalan boy apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border died Tuesday night in El Paso after several weeks in the hospital, according to the Guatemalan Consulate and another person with direct knowledge of the case.

The boy, who was not identified, arrived at the border with his mother days after now-acting homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan held a news conference near a crowded holding facility in El Paso on March 27 to warn that a surge of Central Americans was pushing the system to the “breaking point.”

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The boy is the fourth migrant child to die since December after being apprehended at the southern border and taken to the hospital. All have been from Guatemala, a Central American nation experiencing severe drought and poverty, and where smugglers have been offering discounted trips to families traveling to the United States.

Record numbers of families from Guatemala and other northern Central American countries are surrendering at the border and seeking asylum, with nearly 100,000 crossing in April, the highest monthly total in a decade. The White House has asked Congress for $4.5 billion in aid and increased enforcement, saying the influx is risking lives, while advocates for immigrants have raised concern about health and safety conditions in cramped federal holding facilities.

The Washington Post confirmed the death with two sources, including Guatemala’s Consul Tekandi Paniagua, who covers the El Paso area. Another source confirmed the death on the condition of anonymity.

Paniagua said the boy, who had spent three days in federal custody, appeared to have developed a form of pneumonia, but the death remains under investigation. The El Paso medical examiner’s office and the hospital declined to comment.

It is unclear when the boy fell ill. A Customs and Border Protection official familiar with the case, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the CBP apprehended the boy and his mother on April 3 near the Paso del Norte International Bridge.

On April 6, the official said, his mother alerted agents that he was sick. An ambulance took him to a hospital in Horizon City that day, and officials transferred him the next day to Providence Children’s Hospital in El Paso.

On April 8, federal officials formally released the family from Border Protection custody with a “notice to appear” in immigration court.

CBP officials are required to notify Congress of a death in custody within 24 hours, and it was not immediately clear whether officials would do that when The Washington Post inquired about the death because the boy had been released from custody.

Later, an official said they would notify lawmakers.

After two Guatemalan children died in December, Homeland Security officials expanded care for children at the border. They have required health screenings of all children in custody and deployed scores of medics and equipment to the border to quickly triage new arrivals, some arriving in groups of 300 at a time.

Hundreds of people have been taken to the hospital. Some have arrived with preexisting health concerns, including influenza and liver disease.

Two weeks ago, U.S. border agents along the Rio Grande recovered the body of a 10-month-old boy after his family’s raft capsized while crossing the river near Eagle Pass, Tex.

On April 30, a 16-year-old unaccompanied minor from the southeastern state of Chiquimula suffered a severe brain infection and died after several days in federal custody. He had been apprehended more than a week earlier and transferred to a Health and Human Services shelter. His was the first known death in HHS custody.

In December, two young Guatemalan children died after being apprehended by CBP. Felipe Gomez Alonzo, 8, died of complications from influenza B infection, and Jakelin Caal, 7, died of a bacterial infection.

Among the worst crowding is in the El Paso sector, where on March 27 agents held almost 3,500 migrants in custody, well above capacity, and some families were held under a bridge.

Paniagua said the consulate has warned families in Guatemala that the trip is risky.

“We have reiterated the message that trips to the United States, in the condition in which the Guatemalan families are undertaking them, is highly dangerous,” Paniagua said in a statement. “We’ve seen four cases in a row of children who have lost their lives in this way.”

maria.sacchetti@washpost.com

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