How The Government Is Responding To A 5th Migrant Child Death At The Southern Border

May 21, 2019
Originally published on May 21, 2019 5:46 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

NPR's Joel Rose has been covering this story, including the government's response. He's in the studio now. Welcome, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So we just heard there from the ACLU. Border Patrol obviously has been under fire for months because of the deaths of these five migrant children. Has anything changed since December?

ROSE: Well, I should say first of all that we did ask the Department of Homeland Security for comment on that ACLU complaint - did not hear back from them. But officials at Customs and Border Protection really were shaken by these deaths. Before December, no child had died in CBP custody in over a decade. They really have expanded. They have expanded the medical response. Many of the Border Patrol stations are now staffed 24 hours a day with medical staff, which was not the case before.

And Border Patrol agents are making a lot of trips to the hospital with sick children up and down the Southwest border - nearly 70 kids a day since December, they say. But immigration officials say it's just hard to keep up with the sheer numbers here. It's putting a huge strain on resources, and they're asking Congress for billions of additional dollars to deal with it.

CORNISH: In the meantime, what more have you learned in your reporting about the death of Carlos Hernandez Vasquez?

ROSE: Well, a couple of things. One thing that really stands out is that Carlos Hernandez Vasquez died in a Border Patrol station. The previous migrant children who died were taken to the hospital first; Hernandez Vasquez was not even though immigration authorities clearly knew that he was sick. He was diagnosed with the flu by a nurse practitioner.

On the same day, Customs and Border Protection moved him to a different Border Patrol station where they could separate him from the other migrants to stop the spread of the flu. Even Health and Human Services officials were concerned about how ill he was. This is the agency that's responsible for long-term care of unaccompanied children. And HHS decided that Hernandez Vasquez could not be flown to a shelter in Florida because of his illness. So in retrospect, critics say it's hard to see why they did not take him to the hospital.

CORNISH: Do you think that this case is going to spur new changes to procedure or to policy regarding migrant care?

ROSE: Investigations into this latest migrant death are still ongoing. The FBI, local police, CBP all have their own investigations, which may eventually shed some more light on what exactly went wrong here. But I think we're already hearing calls for these agencies to just follow the law and hand over migrant children to Health and Human Services within 72 hours as they are supposed to do. For their part, the agencies say they're trying to comply, but they need more resources. Not only are these Border Patrol stations overwhelmed, but the migrant shelters that are overseen by HHS are also near capacity.

CORNISH: One more thing - today the president appointed an immigration hard-liner, Ken Cuccinelli, to a post inside the Homeland Security Department. How could this affect immigration policy?

ROSE: Right. This is the former attorney general of Virginia who ran for governor on a hard-line immigration platform a few years ago. He's already been a White House adviser on immigration. He has advocated for sending more troops to the border and stopping the migrant caravans that were a big story last year. Now Cuccinelli is going to have a formal role inside the Department of Homeland Security.

To me, this shows that President Trump is doubling down on his crackdown on immigrants that is likely to be a central focus of his 2020 reelection campaign. Though of course, as immigrant advocates point out, that strategy seems to have backfired, at least in part, when Republicans lost the House in last year's midterm elections.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Joel Rose. Joel, thank you.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.