Guatemalan 16-year-old boy dies in U.S. custody after crossing the border

A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle sits above the Rio Grande at the U.S.-Mexico border in Brownsville, Texas.
A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle sits above the Rio Grande at the U.S.-Mexico border in Brownsville, Texas.
(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)
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A 16-year-old boy died in U.S. custody after crossing the southern border without an adult, the latest of several young migrant deaths that occurred in federal custody in recent months, officials said Wednesday.

The Guatemalan youth died Tuesday after spending several days in intensive care at a children’s hospital, Health and Human Services spokeswoman Evelyn Stauffer said in a statement. Stauffer declined to name the boy, the hospital or the city where he was treated.

His death comes as the number of children and families seeking asylum at the southern border has reached historic levels. The White House said Tuesday that it needs another $4.5 billion to handle the surge of undocumented migrants at the border, with $2.8 billion of that amount going toward providing shelter to unaccompanied children and teens.


So far this year, compared to the same time last year, 66% more unaccompanied children have been caught or turned themselves in at the border, making 35,898 total — more than two-thirds of them in Texas, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s most recent figures from the end of March. The number of families with children has increased 374% as of March compared with the same time last year.

The youth who died this week had initially shown no “health concerns,” according to Border Patrol clinicians, when he was transferred from the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement on April 20 to a shelter run by the Department of Health and Human Services, which houses migrant children, the statement said.

The department’s statement provided the following description of what happened next: The morning after he was transferred to the shelter, the youth became “noticeably ill” with fever, chills and a headache. Shelter personnel took him to an emergency room, and he was treated and released to the shelter later that day. A day later, on April 22, the youth’s health deteriorated again, and he was taken by ambulance to another emergency room, transferred to a children’s hospital and sent to intensive care, where he spent several days.

While hospitalized, the youth was visited by his brother and Guatemalan consular officials, the statement said, and his family received updates from hospital staff. On Tuesday, he died. His cause of death was being investigated by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the boy had “a severe infection” in his brain and had emergency surgery at a Corpus Christi hospital before he died. Guatemalan officials said the boy was from the southeastern state of Chiquimula and crossed the Mexican border into the El Paso area on April 19.

“The government of Guatemala laments the death of this young Guatemalan and offers its condolences to the family,” the statement said.


Officials are sending the boy’s remains to Guatemala.

In recent months, federal officials have investigated the deaths of several other migrant children in U.S. custody after news of their deaths provoked widespread outrage. In December, 8-year-old Felipe Alonzo Gomez and 7-year-old Jakelin Caal — both Guatemalan migrants traveling with their fathers — died in Border Patrol custody in El Paso; in February a Honduran migrant mother suffered a stillbirth while detained at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Texas. Autopsies showed Jakelin died of a bacterial infection and Felipe died of the flu.

After Jakelin’s death, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants urged U.S. officials not to detain migrants and called for an investigation. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, then Border Patrol commissioner, said medical screenings were added for all migrants and staff were transferred to the border to help process them.

Migrant advocates have long complained that cramped holding areas and detention facilities were unsuitable for children and families’ health.

Tornillo, a tent camp east of El Paso that once housed 2,800 migrant youth, closed earlier this year, but another shelter in Homestead, Fla., has since swelled to 2,200 youth. As more unaccompanied children and families arrive, Border Patrol officials — saying they lack space — have expanded spartan temporary shelters on the border. A massive temporary shelter is scheduled to be unveiled in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley on Thursday.

The Brownsville Herald reported that the 16-year-old Guatemalan boy was held at a shelter in the Rio Grande Valley city run by Southwest Key, one of the country’s largest shelter operators, which has faced allegations of abuse that forced them to close two shelters in Arizona. Southwest Key spokesman Neil Nowlin referred questions to Stauffer, who did not respond late Wednesday.

Marsha Griffin, a pediatrician in the Brownsville area and co-chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ special interest group on immigrant health, said the circumstances surrounding the 16-year-old’s death need to be investigated, including the conditions in which he was held. She said it’s not clear whether Border Patrol have enough trained medical personnel in processing centers where migrants are initially held. They centers are often kept so cold, they’re known as hieleras, or ice boxes, which can contribute to making migrants sick, she said.

“We’re going to need to know more about his situation and we need to be able to get into the Border Patrol processing centers to be able to monitor whether there is improved care being provided there,” Griffin said. “That oversight is really important.”