U.S. bishops 'distressed' at death of 7-year-old asylum seeker

U.S. border marker. CNA file photo.
U.S. border marker. CNA file photo.

.- The death of a seven-year-old asylum seeker in federal custody is a reminder that immigration policies can have life and death consequences, the U.S. bishops’ conference migration committee chairman said Tuesday.

“We are extremely distressed at the news of seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin’s death shortly after crossing the U.S./Mexico border with her father and turning themselves into CBP in search of asylum in the United States. Our prayers and heart-felt condolences go out to Jakelin’s family,” Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, chairman of the USCCB committee on migration, said in a Dec. 18 joint statement with Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso and Bishop Gerald Kicanas, temporary administrator of the Las Cruces diocese.

“The death of a child is always a moment of great sadness, a jarring disruption of the natural order of life.”

“From this tragedy, we must remember this profound human consequence of our failed immigration policies, including also that restrictions on the flow of asylum seekers at the border can push more families to seek entrance between ports of entry which place them at greater risk, the statement added.

Maquin died Dec. 8 in an El Paso hospital. She was apprehended two days earlier with her father, along with 161 other asylum seekers who turned themselves in to U.S. agents near a port of entry south of Lordsburg, N.M.  She and her father had traveled to the U.S. border from the small village of Raxruha, Guatemala. The journey to the U.S. took nearly a week. The pair were not a part of the so-called “migration caravans” that have sought entry into the United States in recent weeks.

In Guetemala, the girl lived a “tiny wooden house with a straw roof, dirt floors, a few bedsheets and a fire pit for cooking, where Jakelin used to sleep with her parents and three siblings. The brothers are barefoot, their feet caked with mud and their clothes in tatters,” according to the Associated Press.

At that house, “a heart constructed out of wood and wrapped in plastic announces Jakelin’s death,” the Associated Press reported.

Maquin began having seizures more than eight hours after she was apprehended. She had a fever that exceeded 105 degrees, and according to Customs and Border Protection officials, she “reportedly had not eaten or consumed water for several days.”

She was airlifted to Providence Children’s Hospital in El Paso, however, she went into cardiac arrest and died less than 24 hours later.

Federal officials says that Maquin’s father did not report that he or his daughter were ill when they were apprehended. Her father, Nery Gilberto Call Cruz, has insisted that the girl had food and water during the journey, according to the Guardian.

“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,” a statement from Cruz’ lawyer said.

Cruz’ lawyer has also claimed that forms requesting information about his daughter’s condition were made available only in English, which Cruz does not speak or read. While Cruz apparently spoke with border agents in Spanish, his primary language is Mayan Q’eqchi’, a fact which may have added to a failure of communication between Cruz and federal officials.

While federal officials say that food and water was available to Maquin while she was in custody, some have reported that available water in immigration detention facilities is often dirty and in limited supply.

Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen told reporters Friday that federal officials did all they could in the situation.

“What happened was they were 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 enough how dangerous this journey is when migrants choose to come here illegally,” Nielson said Dec. 14.

On the same day, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said that Macquin’s was “a needless death, and it's 100 percent preventable. If we could just come together and pass some common sense laws to disincentivize people from coming up from the border and encourage them to do it the right way, the legal way, then those types of deaths, those types of assaults, those types of rapes, the child smuggling, the human trafficking that would all come to an end. And we hope Democrats join the president.”

When asked whether the presidential administration bore any responsibility for Macquin’s death, Hogan responded rhetorically: “Does the administration take responsibility for a parent taking a child on a trek through Mexico to get to this country? No.”

For their part, Vasquez and the U.S. bishops’ conference are awaiting the results of a federal investigation.

“We welcome the investigation of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General. We recognize the work and commitment of CBP officers to ensure our safety, but urge CBP leadership to critically review policies regarding the care of vulnerable populations in their custody. We pledge our assistance to help CBP do so.”

“As we prepare to celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus, himself a child whose parents were told ‘there is no room,’ we continue to recognize and affirm that seeking asylum and protection is legal. As a nation, we have the obligation to receive distraught individuals and families with welcome, compassion, and humane treatment. We must heed the words of Christ that ‘Whatsoever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me,’” the bishops concluded.

“Jakelin’s death is a tragic reminder of the desperate situation that many fleeing violence, persecution, and poverty face - both in their home countries and now at our border.”