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How a 7-year-old migrant girl died while in U.S. detention

Attention is being refocused on the U.S. border after news that a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl died in U.S. detention, within hours of being picked up after crossing illegally with her father. Amna Nawaz also briefs William Brangham on the growing number of immigrant children in government shelters.

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  • William Brangham:

    Today, the Department of Homeland Security confirmed the death of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who last week was apprehended after crossing the border illegally with her father.

    Amna Nawaz is here to walk us through what happened, and what this tragic story can tell us about the government's border control policies.

    Amna, what can you tell us about what happened to this poor girl?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We do have details.

    DHS officials earlier today held a call. They tried to answer some reporters' questions then. We know she was 7 years old. We know she was traveling from Guatemala with her father. She made that 3,000-mile-plus journey with about 163 other people. And they were apprehended on the night of December the 6th — so this is last week — 9:15 p.m. at a place called Antelope Wells, New Mexico, by Border Patrol agents.

    So, here's the crucial part of the timeline I want to zero in on. Let's take a look at this. We're now talking about the next morning, right, December the 7th. At 4:30 a.m., that's the first time that a bus is available to transport this little girl named Jakelin Caal, by the way, with her father.

  • At 5:

    00 a.m., just before the bus leaves, the father tells agents she is sick and she is vomiting. The bus continues to move to what is the closest Border Patrol station. It's an hour-and-a-half away. At 6:30, it arrived there. And she received medical care for the first time since arriving in the U.S. at 7:45.

    And she's no longer breathing, by the way, by the time she gets to the Border Patrol station — 7:45, an air ambulance is called in to transport her to the closest trauma unit. That is over in El Paso.

    We're told, when she arrived there, Jakelin was dehydrated. She had swelling around her brain. She was reliant on a ventilator by that point. The next morning, December the 8th, this 7-year-old girl dies.

    Now, one of the big questions is, why did it take so long to get her medical attention? Here's where a map is incredibly you useful to know where we're talking about. That base, Antelope Wells in New Mexico, it's in an incredibly remote part of the country. There is water on site, we're told by DHS. We don't know if Jakelin had any.

    There is no medical staff there. And, from that base, they have to drive 95 miles to that closest Border Patrol station you see up in Lordsburg. That's 95 miles of nothing. There's no facilities, no towns, no medical support along the way.

    DHS officials basically say, look, everyone got initially screen. She wasn't sick at the time. Her father didn't flag that she was unwell. They say, when they got on the bus — and there is just one bus available to shuttle people back and forth, by the way — they did all they could with the resources that they had.

  • William Brangham:

    On this issue of resources, I mean, it does seem like a relatively small response, given that DHS knows that these people are coming in places like this.

  • Amna Nawaz:


  • William Brangham:

    Is DHS saying, we need more because we know these people are arriving?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Not really.

    I mean, look, in terms of resources, there were four border agents there, the one bus we mentioned. That's not unusual overnight like that. We know that they regularly handle groups this size. They say they get around 100 to 300 people at a time. And we know the numbers of children they're encountering, those are going up.

    Those have been going up. Take a look at this other graphic we can show you now. This is what we call family unit apprehensions. These are adults arriving with children. That's been going up steadily over the last four months, the most recent numbers last month, 52,000.

    That's been going up, by the way, since 2012. And, basically, groups who track this say, when the threats changed down in Central America, so did the demographics of the group arriving here. The difference is that we, as a government, we, as a country, haven't been doing anything to change how we're receiving them and caring for them, even though we know that they're coming.

    If you want to understand, though, how the administration is viewing this, take a listen to how Deputy White House Press Secretary Hogan Gidley responded earlier today when he was asked about Jakelin's death.

  • HOGAN GIDLEY, White House Deputy Press Secretary:

    It's a horrific situation. There's no — there's no two ways about it.

    And it's a sad time, but it's also senseless. It's a needless death, and it's 100 percent preventable. Does the administration take responsibility for a parent taking a child on a trek through Mexico to get to this country? No.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, William, they made clear, right, the responsibility is not with them for failing to provide adequate care. It's with the parents for bringing them to the border in the first place.

  • William Brangham:

    Separate from this one particular tragedy, we know that there are lots of concerns about all the other young people who are being kept in U.S. custody right now.

  • Amna Nawaz:


  • William Brangham:

    Can you tell us — you have been doing so much reporting on this — what is the status of those other people?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes, we should mention there's now an investigation into this young girl's death, led by the inspector general.

    We also should mention we have now more migrant children in U.S. government care than ever before in history. It's about 15,000. And we also know that they're staying in our care longer. And that's because this administration has put into place rules that prevent them and slow their release to family members, who've usually been coming for pretty quickly to get them.

    Children now stay in our care in custody for about 60 days. And it's in a system that's not designed to keep children long-term. The administration requires fingerprints and background checks for people who are stepping forward.

    And then they arrest a lot of those people on the basis of their immigration status.

  • William Brangham:

    The people who come forward to say, I would like to sponsor this child, they're getting arrested when they volunteer to do this?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, on the basis of their immigration status, even if they have no other criminal history.

    We know that that's happening again and again. And DHS said that they would do this again and again. I think the thing to focus in on here is now we know that more children will be arriving, and we're not prepared to handle them.

    And I will share with you just one story I heard from an advocate who was down on the border interviewing migrant children. She talked to a young girl from Guatemala. And she asked her, why did you make this journey? You know how dangerous it is? You know that children don't do well on this.

    The little girl said, look, back home, they were going to kill me either way, and I wasn't going to let them decide how I died. If I died, I was going to die trying to live.

    That little girl, William, was 9 years old. And she said that, if she had to make the journey again, she would.

  • William Brangham:

    Amna, thank you very much.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Of course.

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