By VALERIE GONZALEZ and REBECCA SANTANA, Associated Press
MCALLEN, Texas (AP) — A little girl from Panama born with heart problems died in Border Patrol custody Wednesday, the second death of a child from Latin America in U.S. government custody in two weeks.
The eight-year-old girl and her family were being held in Harlingen, Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the busiest corridors for migrant crossings. The Border Patrol’s parent agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, has struggled with overcrowding at its facilities, spurred by a large increase in migrants ahead of the expiration last week of a key regulation on immigration linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The girl experienced “a medical emergency” and emergency medical services were called. They took her to the hospital where she was pronounced dead, the agency said. An autopsy has been ordered.
The girl’s name was Anadith Tanay Reyes Alvarez, said Honduran Consul José Leonardo Navas, who is based in McAllen, Texas. He said she is from Panama, although her parents are from Honduras. The consul said she was traveling with her father, mother and two older siblings.
She was born with heart problems and was operated on three years ago in Panama, according to her father who spoke with the consul.
Customs and Border Protection’s internal affairs office will investigate the girl’s death, and the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general and Harlingen police have been notified, Customs and Border Protection said.
Her death comes a week after a 17-year-old Honduran boy, Ángel Eduardo Maradiaga Espinoza, who was traveling alone, died in U.S. Health and Human Services Department custody.
Also, earlier this year, a four-year-old “medically fragile unaccompanied child from Honduras” died at a hospital in Michigan, Health and Human Services said in a statement Thursday. The agency said the child, who was in the care of the agency’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, was taken to the hospital on March 14 following a “cardiac arrest event.” She died three days later, the agency said.
In recent weeks the U.S. has struggled with large numbers of migrants coming to the border in expectation of the end of Title 42, a regulation that had curbed migration during the pandemic.
Last week, hundreds of migrants were held in open air on U.S. soil between two border walls in San Diego. Many subsisted for days on a limited Border Patrol diet of water and chips or granola bars and whatever volunteers or vendors passed through openings in the wall.
Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S.-Mexico border program, said Thursday that portable bathrooms were too full to use, forcing migrants to relieve themselves outdoors. He said the Border Patrol told him to call 911 when volunteers encountered an eight-month-old child between the walls was “listless and vomiting.” The camp has since been disbanded.
On Thursday, advocates also warned of dangerous conditions for migrants who are still in Mexico trying to gain entry to the United States. Advocates said during a news conference with journalists that they had visited a number of encampments in Mexico to assess conditions there and found little in the way of medical care.
Amy Fischer, director of Refugee and Migrant Rights at Amnesty International USA, said “almost everyone” they saw on the Mexico side of the border “had some type of health condition that they were dealing with.” She said that was “almost universal” that migrants were “lifting up their shirt and showing a rash or saying that my kid had X kind of sickness.”
Last week, the Border Patrol began releasing migrants in the U.S. without notices to appear in immigration court, instead directing them to report to an immigration office within 60 days. The move spares Border Patrol agents time-consuming processing duties, allowing them to open space in holding facilities. A federal judge in Florida ordered an end to the quick releases.
The Border Patrol had 28,717 people in custody on May 10, the day before pandemic-related asylum restrictions expired, which was double from two weeks earlier, according to a court filing. By Sunday, the number had dropped 23 percent to 22,259, still unusually high.
The Border Patrol has a network of stations and processing facilities across the southwest border where it holds and processes migrants before they’re either released into the U.S. or turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. On its website, the agency says it has a maximum capacity of 5,000 although the agency has been rapidly expanding capacity in recent months.
The average time in custody on Sunday was 77 hours, five hours more than the maximum allowed under agency policy.
During the Trump administration, the deaths of children in U.S. custody became flashpoints of controversy, calling into question the administration’s efforts to protect the most vulnerable migrants at a time when the U.S. was seeing a rise in the number of families with children coming to the southern border. At least six children died during a roughly year-long period from 2018 to 2019. They were held in either Border Patrol or Health and Human Services custody.
Santana reported from Washington. Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Gisela Salomon in Miami contributed to this report.