Ever since the U.S. Border Patrol admitted that Jakelin Ameí Rosmery Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl seeking asylum with her father, had died in their custody, government officials have been trying to deflect blame for her death.
What is clear so far, according to news reports, is that Jakelin and her father turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents on Dec. 7 along with 163 other migrants in the New Mexico desert. According to a Department of Homeland Security incident report, they were screened at a remote substation and found to be in good condition. DHS cannot confirm whether Jakelin consumed food or water at the facility, but eight hours later, she became “feverish and vomiting” on a transport bus headed for the Lordsburg Border Patrol station. She was met by Border Patrol emergency medical technicians who twice revived her, recorded her temperature at 105.9 degrees and called for a helicopter to El Paso’s Providence Children’s Hospital, where she died about 27 hours later.
The U.S. government claims Jakelin had journeyed for days through the desert without food and water and was beyond help before she was taken into custody. However, her father says he saw to it that she was eating and drinking. The president of the American Academy of Pediatrics says her death was without doubt preventable. But Department of Homeland Security Director Kirstjen Nielsen blames the victim in this “heartwrenching” story: “This family,” she said on Friday, “chose to cross illegally.”
A Customs and Border Protection spokesman insisted to the Washington Post that “Border Patrol agents took every possible step to save the child’s life under the most trying of circumstances.” That may well be technically true. But even if individual Lordsburg agents rushed to save Jakelin’s life, it won’t erase another truth: The institutional culture of the Border Patrol regularly dismisses even the most basic needs of detained migrants.
In early 2009, when I arrived at my first Border Patrol duty station in Arizona, I was assigned to a training unit and placed under the supervision of senior agents specially selected to coach newcomers like me. When I read about Jakelin’s death, I couldn’t help but recall the night our training unit first apprehended a group of migrants.
My memories from this night are not precise. I remember the group of migrants was small, maybe eight to 10 people, all of them adult males. We picked them up in the open desert not far from the area’s lone highway, and I can no longer recall how long they had been walking or how many days they might have been without food or water.
What I do remember with certainty is what happened at the processing center. The men had noticed that I spoke fluent Spanish and asked me for water. I went to a nearby storeroom, grabbed a case of bottled water, and was about to walk through the door to the processing room when one of my training agents blocked the way.
What are you doing, she asked me. I told her I was bringing water to the group we brought in. They’ll be fine, she said, come join us in the computer room. But they asked for water, I said, gesturing at the door. It wouldn’t have taken more than a second for me to drop off the water.
Her face and tone changed. Leave it, she ordered, “They’ll live.”
As strange as it may sound, I don’t remember if I obeyed her or what I ended up doing with the water, but I never forgot the message I was given that night: Don’t dare be soft.
Senior agents like her lamented the end of the “old patrol” when migrants weren’t so “coddled” and agents could still get away with “tuning up” any detainee who got out of line. Callousness toward migrants is evident even in the language agents use to refer to them: “aliens,” “illegals,” “bodies” or “toncs” (a term with disputed origins, which some say means “temporarily out of native country,” though others say it alludes to the sound of a Maglite hitting a migrant’s skull).
As agents-in-training, we were taught to carry ourselves as hardened law enforcers and to treat migrants as lawbreakers. We were told to regard migrant requests with suspicion — if they asked for something or complained, they were likely trying to take advantage of us. We were meant to offer our captives the bare minimum and pass them on like a hot potato — field agents passed migrants to transport agents, who passed them to processing agents, who passed them to bus contractors, who passed them to sector headquarters, where they would be immediately deported or thrust into the immigration detention system.
After more than a year of working as a field agent, I signed up for emergency medical technician training. When I was called to help, agents usually described a migrant’s situation with dismissal and annoyance: This one keeps complaining about blisters, this one claims she needs medication, this one won’t shut up about seeing a doctor. Migrants, the thinking went, always bore responsibility for their own misfortune — an attitude echoed in Nielsen’s insistence last week that Jakelin’s family “chose to cross illegally.”
There will be an investigation into Jakelin’s death, but in broad terms its causes are clear enough: heedlessness, a lack of compassion, poor accountability at the border. Since January 2010, San Diego’s Southern Border Communities Coalition has cataloged at least 81 deaths at the hands of U.S. border agents, and since 2000, more than 6,000 have died as a result of “deterrence” policies that force migrants to cross in remote and dangerous areas, like the one Jakelin and her father passed through.
What happened to Jakelin is not an aberration, but rather the predictable outgrowth of the dehumanizing practices that define U.S. border policy. It will not be enough to conduct an audit of the Lordsburg Border Patrol station and shuffle its hierarchy, or to increase the ranks of Border Patrol EMTs and give them pediatric training. We must demand, instead, that the entire culture of cruelty that underlies our border enforcement system be remade.