Migrant child who died in US custody had infection, autopsy finds

An autopsy has found that a seven-year-old indigenous girl from Guatemala died of a bacterial infection while detained by the US Border Patrol, in a case that drew worldwide attention to the plight of migrant families detained at the southern US border.

The El Paso County Medical Examiner’s office released a report Friday of its findings in the death of Jakelin Caal Maquin. Jakelin died on December 8, just over a day after she was apprehended by Border Patrol agents with her father.

The report says traces of streptococcus bacteria were found in Jakelin’s lungs, adrenal gland, liver, and spleen.

The autopsy says she faced a “rapidly progressive infection” that led to the failure of multiple organs.

The medical examiner did not determine which form of streptococcus bacteria Jakelin contracted.

Jakelin was one of two children to die in Border Patrol custody in December, raising questions about the agency’s medical practices as it faces a surge in migrant families crossing the southern border.

US Customs and Border Protection said shortly after Jakelin’s death that she was apprehended with her father, Nery Gilberto Caal Cuz, in a group of 163 migrants at about 9:15pm December 6 in New Mexico. The father signed an English-language form stating Jakelin was in good health, but it remains unclear whether he understood what the form said. 

Jakelin and her father boarded a bus at about 4:30am on December 7 from the Antelope Wells port of entry for the Lordsburg station. According to a CBP statement, Jakelin’s father reported just before the bus left at 5:00am that she was vomiting.

The bus arrived in Lordsburg about 90 minutes later, CBP said. By then, Jakelin’s temperature had reached 105.7 degrees Fahrenheit (40.9 degrees Celsius). An emergency medical technician had to revive her.

She was flown to a hospital in El Paso, Texas, where she died the next day.

‘Ill-suited facilities’

CBP says large groups of migrants are increasingly heading to remote areas of the border such as rural New Mexico, where it has very limited facilities or staff to apprehend and care for them. The Border Patrol recently started releasing families immediately instead of referring them to processing, a step the agency said was necessary to relieve overcrowding in its facilities. 

CBP declined on Friday to comment on the autopsy report. Commissioner Kevin McAleenan previously said in a statement that the agents who were involved “are deeply affected and empathise with the father over the loss of his daughter”.

“We cannot stress enough the dangers posed by travelling long distances, in crowded transportation, or in the natural elements through remote desert areas without food, water and other supplies,” McAleenan said.

Advocates have criticised CBP for its treatment of migrant families and for portraying their growing numbers as a crisis. They have long warned that immigration facilities are ill-suited to detain families. After Jakelin’s death, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants urged the US not to detain migrants and called for “a thorough investigation” of her death. 

RAICES, a group that provides legal services to detained immigrants, tweeted on Friday: “We will keep fighting for you and the innocent children and their families seeking refuge in this country.”

Tekandi Paniagua, the Guatemalan consul based in Del Rio, Texas, said his office had spoken to Nery Caal on Friday and that he would “continue providing the necessary accompaniment and support to the Caal family”.

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