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Dispute over death of seven-year-old migrant girl in custody in US intensifies

21 December 2018


Representatives of Episcopal congregations in south-west Texas for an “El Paso Pilgrimage” on Thursday of last week, initiated by the Rector of St Stephen’s, Richmond, in Virginia, the Revd Gary Jones, to counter a narrative that vilifies asylum-seekers

Representatives of Episcopal congregations in south-west Texas for an “El Paso Pilgrimage” on Thursday of last week, initiated by the Rect...

CONFLICTING reports over the death of a seven-year-old migrant girl while in the custody of the United States Border Patrol has intensified the heated debate in the US.

The girl, Jakelin Caal, crossed the southern border of the US with her father, earlier this month, after trekking thousands of miles from their home in remote rural Guatemala.

Shortly after the pair handed themselves in to the Border Patrol agents, after they had entered American territory, Jakelin began vomiting and having seizures.

She was taken by bus and then helicopter to the nearest hospital — which was hundreds of miles away from the remote desert entry point in New Mexico where they had arrived — but later died.

Initial reports suggest that she died from dehydration, liver failure, and septic shock. The US border authorities’ account said that she had not eaten or drunk anything for several days while travelling through desert conditions.

This has been rejected by statements from Jakelin’s family. Her father, Nery Caal, is being looked after by a Christian migrant charity in Texas, Annunciation House.

The director of the charity, Ruben Garcia, said at a press conference that Mr Caal had told him that Jakelin was in good health. “He’s been very clear, very consistent that his daughter was healthy, and his daughter very much wanted to come with him,” Mr Garcia said.

The Caal family now want an “objective and thorough” investigation into how their daughter died, their lawyer said in a statement. “Jakelin’s father took care of Jakelin, made sure she was fed and had sufficient water.”

They also denied the suggestion by the US authorities that the pair had been walking through the desert for days. Instead, they had been dropped off just a 90-minute walk from the border by people smugglers, the family said.

Another statement, from the Department for Homeland Security (DHS), said that Mr Caal had signed a form when he was taken into the Border Patrol’s custody which confirmed that neither he nor Jakelin was unwell. “At this time, they were offered water and food and had access to restrooms,” the statement continued.

But Mr Caal’s lawyers’ statement said that this form was in English, a language that he does not speak. “It is unacceptable for any government agency to have persons in custody sign documents in a language that they clearly do not understand,” they said.

When asked by reporters, a spokesman for the White House denied that President Trump’s administration bore any responsibility for the girl’s death.

But others have said the tragedy shines a light on the increasingly hostile policies taken by the US government to try and deter migrants from entering the country.

Since taking office, President Trump’s administration has tightened immigration rules and repeatedly warned of an “invasion” of migrants across the southern border. Earlier this year, he provoked outrage by ordering border agents to separate migrant children from their parents (News, 29 June), and, in the build-up to November’s midterm elections, warned of a “caravan” of migrants which was approaching the border (News, 26 October).

The Episcopal Church in the US has condemned the President’s aggressive rhetoric, and reiterated that “all people have a right to seek asylum, and deterring individuals from seeking protection is neither lawful nor compassionate”.

Most of the recent wave of migrants and asylum-seekers are coming from countries in central America. Some are fleeing violence and exploitation at home, while others hope to escape poverty and find better jobs in the US.

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