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On Christmas Eve, a U.S. border patrol agent noticed that an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy in government custody was coughing and appeared to have “glossy eyes.” The boy and his father were transferred to a nearby New Mexico hospital for medical treatment.
According to a timeline of events from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the child was released with a prescription for amoxicillin and ibuprofen after doctors had diagnosed him with a common cold.
Later that evening, agents brought him back to the hospital when his health appeared to worsen. CBP said that the child vomited and lost consciousness on the way.
The boy was pronounced dead minutes before midnight.
On Christmas Day, CBP announced the death. A U.S. congressman later identified the boy as Felipe Gómez Alonzo.
Felipe’s death marks the second time a minor has died in detention this month, again raising questions about whether officials failed to notice vital signs of distress from a migrant child in government custody.
The other minor, Jakelin Caal, a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl, died of dehydration and shock on Dec. 8, 36 hours after being apprehended by border agents. Her remains were returned to Guatemala and buried on Christmas Day.
Here’s what we know so far about Felipe’s death and the reaction.
Dec. 18: The boy and his father were first apprehended by border agents about three miles west of the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry in El Paso, Texas. Customs and Border Protection officials said the pair was flagged for illegal entry. In its initial statement, the agency didn’t say how long they were in detention.
Dec. 20: They were transferred to El Paso Border Patrol Station. Two days later, the pair was transferred again to another Border Patrol station in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Officials said this was done because the El Paso border station was crowded.
Dec. 24: The agency outlined what happened next, in a statement:
The official cause of Felipe’s death has yet to be determined.
The New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator said in a statement late Thursday that initial autopsy results indicated that the boy had influenza, but also cautioned that “determining an accurate cause of death requires further evaluation of other laboratory specimens and interpreting the findings in the context of the symptoms and autopsy findings.”
The father, Agustin Gomez, has yet to provide his own version of the events.
Jakelin Caal’s family disputed some of the government’s claims about what happened leading up to her death, saying the girl was healthy and had no pre-existing conditions when she and her father made the journey from Guatemala. CBP had reported that Jakelin didn’t eat or consume water for several days on the trip northward.
In its extended statement Tuesday about Felipe Gómez Alonzo, the agency said the boy and his father received welfare checks at each of the stations where they were held. In a statement Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan called the death a “tragic loss.”
“On behalf of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, our deepest sympathies go out to the family,” McAleenan added.
Felipe’s body will be transported to a funeral home in Alamogordo, New Mexico, before ultimately being transferred to Albuquerque for an autopsy.
Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas said in a statement in response to Felipe’s death that “many questions remain unanswered, including how many children have died in CBP custody.”
The two recent child deaths were an “extraordinarily rare occurrence,” McAleenan told CBS.
“It’s been more than a decade since we’ve had a child pass away anywhere in a CBP process, so this is just devastating for us,” McAleenan said.
On Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen echoed McAleenan’s comments, adding that there were just six adult migrant deaths in fiscal year 2018.
In her statement Wednesday, Nielsen said that, going forward, all migrant children in government custody will “receive a more thorough hands-on assessment at the earliest possible time post apprehension — whether or not the accompanying adult has asked for one.”
Nielsen and immigration agencies previously had not been able to answer the question of how many children have died while in the agency’s custody, drawing criticism from lawmakers.
In her testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last week, Nielsen told Rep. David Cicilline, D-Rhode Island, that she didn’t “have an exact figure,” which appeared to rankle the congressman.
“Do you have a rough idea?” Cicilline said.
Video by PBS NewsHour
When Nielsen tried responding, Cicilline interrupted to say: “I’m talking about people who have died in your custody. You don’t have the number?”
Nielsen said she’d get back to the committee with that number. The agency did not say how many children are currently under its care that would receive the secondary medical checks.
In Felipe’s case, the agency hasn’t fully addressed why the boy and his father were held in detention for about a week after being apprehended at the border. Typically, the agency releases migrant children from its holding facilities within 72 hours.
The Department of Homeland Security also hasn’t said why Felipe was released from the hospital 90 minutes after doctors had monitored him for an 103-degree fever.
McAleenan told “CBS This Morning” Wednesday that it was emergency room doctors and nurses that made the decision to discharge the child.
A spokeswoman for the Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center said in a statement that privacy regulations prevented the hospital from sharing information about an individual patient and could not comment on the case.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland said in a statement Wednesday that the Democrats would hold hearings in the new Congress over Felipe and Jakelin’s deaths, “as well as the conditions under which thousands of children are being held.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a letter Wednesday to the CBP commissioner that she was writing to “request a full accounting and a revised protocol to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future.”
CBP said it was seeking help from other government agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard and from the Defense Department, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services.
CBP has also said it alerted the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility and the DHS’s Inspector General, both of which will launch their own investigations.
Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry said the country’s government would provide Felipe’s father with consular assistance and assume responsibility for repatriating the boy’s remains. The Guatemalan government also called for an investigation and requested access to Felipe’s medical records.
Joshua Barajas is a senior editor for the PBS NewsHour's Communities Initiative. He also the senior editor and manager of newsletters.
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