Family of migrant girl disputes official story on her death
By The Associated Press
Monday, December 17
The family of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died in U.S. Border Patrol custody is disputing an account from U.S. officials who said she had not been given food or water for days.
In a statement released by lawyers, the parents of Jakelin Caal said the girl had been given food and water and appeared to be in good health as she traveled through Mexico with her father, 29-year-old Nery Gilberto Caal Cuz. The family added that Jakelin had not been traveling through the desert for days before she was taken into custody.
Tekandi Paniagua, the Guatemalan consul in Del Rio, Texas, told The Associated Press that he spoke with the Jakelin’s father. The consul said Nery Caal told him the group they were traveling with was dropped off in Mexico about a 90-minute walk from the border.
Border Patrol officials did not immediately respond to the family’s comments.
The family’s statement was released Saturday during a news conference in El Paso, Texas, at an immigrant shelter where Jakelin’s father is staying. Her family did not attend and has asked for privacy.
Jakelin and her father were seeking asylum in the U.S. and were among a large group of migrants arrested Dec. 6 near a remote border crossing in New Mexico. Hours later they were placed on a bus to the nearest Border Patrol station, but Jakelin began vomiting and eventually stopped breathing. She later died at a Texas hospital.
Border Patrol officials on Friday said agents did everything they could to save the girl but that she had not had food or water for days. They added that an initial screening showed no evidence of health problems, and that her father had signed a form indicating she was in good health.
But the family took issue with that form, which was in English, a language her father doesn’t speak or read. He communicated with border agents in Spanish but he primarily speaks the Mayan Q’eqchi’ language.
“It is unacceptable for any government agency to have persons in custody sign documents in a language that they clearly do not understand,” the statement said.
Jakelin’s family is urging authorities to conduct an “objective and thorough” investigation into the death and to determine whether officials met standards for the arrest and custody of children.
A cause of death has not yet been released. A private prayer service was held in Texas on Friday so her father could see Jakelin’s body before it is taken to Guatemala, said Ruben Garcia, director of the Annunciation House shelter where her father is staying.
“All of us were moved by the depth of his faith and his trust that God’s hand is in all of this,” Garcia said.
Family members in Guatemala said Caal decided to migrate with his favorite child to earn money he could send back home. Jakelin’s mother and three siblings remained in San Antonio Secortez, a village of about 420 inhabitants.
Child’s death highlights communication barriers on border
By JULIE WATSON
Monday, December 17
Shortly before a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl died in U.S. custody, her father signed a form stating that his daughter was in good health. But it’s unclear how much the man understood on the form, which was written in English and read to him in Spanish by Border Patrol agents.
The death of Jakelin Caal highlights the communication challenges along the U.S.-Mexico border as agents come in contact with an increasing number of migrants who speak neither English nor Spanish.
Her father’s native language is the Mayan tongue known as Q’eqchi’. His second language is Spanish. It’s unclear whether something was lost in translation or whether it would have made a difference in saving Jakelin after the two were detained and underwent a health screening along a remote stretch of U.S.-Mexico border. But the case raises questions about the Border Patrol’s use of English-only forms.
All agents are required to speak Spanish, and they receive formal Spanish training. Reading forms in Spanish is often enough to pose basic questions. But some other Spanish-speaking migrants reported signing paperwork that they later said they did not understand.
Scores of immigrant parents who were separated from their children after crossing the border in the spring said they signed forms agreeing to be deported with the understanding that their kids would be returning with them, only to find themselves deported without them. Many had to wait months before being reunited with them in their homelands.
Jakelin and her father, Nery Gilberto Caal Cuz, were part of a group of 163 migrants arrested Dec. 6 near a border crossing in New Mexico. Hours later, they were placed on a bus to the nearest Border Patrol station, but Jakelin began vomiting and eventually stopped breathing. She later died at a Texas hospital.
Border Patrol officials on Friday said agents did everything they could to save the girl but that she had not had food or water for days. An initial screening showed no evidence of health problems, they said, and her father spoke to them in Spanish and signed a form indicating she was in good health.
Attorneys in Texas representing Caal criticized U.S. officials for asking him to sign Form I-779, which asks a series of questions with check boxes of “yes” or “no.” In the additional comments section on the form was written “claims good health.”
“It is unacceptable for any government agency to have persons in custody sign documents in a language that they clearly do not understand,” the attorneys said in a statement.
The family also disputed the accounts offered by U.S. officials that the girl walked for days in the desert without food or water before crossing. The father’s lawyers said Caal took care of his daughter, giving her sufficient water and food, and she appeared to be in good health.
Jakelin’s family is asking for an “objective and thorough” investigation to determine whether officials met standards for taking children into custody.
Border Patrol officials did not immediately respond to the family lawyers’ statement. The father, who is staying at a shelter in El Paso, Texas, has asked for privacy.
Authorities are conducting an autopsy to determine the cause of death. Results are expected in about a week, said Tekandi Paniagua, the Guatemalan consul in Del Rio, Texas.
Paniagua, who spoke with Jakelin’s father, said the two had walked with the other migrants for about 90 minutes before crossing and Caal told him he had no complaints about how agents treated him and his daughter.
Caal speaks broken Spanish. In his impoverished village in Guatemala, Spanish is needed only occasionally, such as when the community deals with schools and health care or for work, Paniagua said.
More than two dozen languages are spoken in Guatemala, and the consulate tries to send interpreters as soon as possible to help detained migrants, Paniagua said. But sometimes by the time they get there, the migrants have already signed forms.
“We’ll ask, ‘Do you speak Spanish?’ And they’ll say yes,” he said. “Then we’ll ask, ‘But do you understand Spanish?’ And often they’ll say, ‘No, I need an interpreter.’”
Caal asked the Guatemalan consulate in Texas, which had reached out to him, if he could see his daughter one last time before her body was sent back to her homeland. That request prompted special arrangements at a private funeral home on Friday, when he said goodbye to Jakelin.
The consulate asked him if he wanted an interpreter who could explain everything, including the repatriation of her body, in Q’eqchi.’
He said he did. After listening to the interpreter, Paniagua said, Caal thanked the consulate and said “he felt more comfortable in his own language.”
Trump weighs next move on border wall as shutdown looms
By LISA MASCARO, MATTHEW DALY and CATHERINE LUCEY
Sunday, December 16
WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress is racing to avoid a partial government shutdown next Friday over President Donald Trump’s border wall. But you wouldn’t know it by the schedule, as lawmakers left town waiting for the White House’s next move.
The House is taking an extended five-day weekend, returning Wednesday night. The Senate returns Monday after a three-day absence.
The ball is in Trump’s court, both sides say, and the president met Friday with top aides to discuss his spending strategy. There’s an expectation on Capitol Hill he’ll reach out soon to offer lawmakers a plan.
The president said this week he’d be “proud” to shut down the government over the $5 billion he wants for the wall on the southern border, but he has since taken a softer tone, tweeting, “Let’s not do a shutdown, Democrats – do what’s right for the American People!” But Trump doesn’t have the votes from the Republican-controlled Congress to support funding for the wall at the level he wants.
Democratic congressional leaders, Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, made a counter offer during a contentious meeting at the White House of no more than $1.6 billion, as outlined in a bipartisan Senate bill. The money would not go for the wall but for fencing upgrades and other border security. Democrats also offered to simply keep funding at its current level, $1.3 billion.
Without a resolution, parts of the federal government would shut down at midnight Dec. 21.
Trump met on Friday with legislative affairs director Shahira Knight and budget director Mick Mulvaney to discuss strategy. Some White House aides were startled by Trump’s embrace of a shutdown during his meeting with Democratic leaders, though others argued that it was another example of Trump sticking with his campaign promises.
“The president made it very clear: He does want a border wall. He does want border security. He wants to protect the American people,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told reporters on Friday.
While Trump has long rallied for the border wall with Mexico, a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, Republicans on Capitol Hill never fully warmed to the plan, and they are less likely now to round up the votes for it after losing the House majority in the November election.
Each passing day brings Democrats closer to taking control of the House, and with Christmas approaching, enthusiasm for a prolonged fight over the wall was waning even among some Republicans who support it.
“We’re out of time,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., who lost a bid for re-election last month.
Denham backs the wall as part of a broader immigration overhaul, but said Republicans would be better served by approving a short-term budget resolution that postpones the wall fight until January while keeping the government open.
“Allow the next Congress to come in, get seated, committee chairs to get filled, and then actually have a full debate on a bipartisan solution,” Denham told CNN Friday.
Democrats, meanwhile, are not inclined to give an inch, as seen by the backing Pelosi received after confronting Trump during their televised meeting in the Oval Office. She’s poised to become House speaker when the new Congress convenes Jan. 3.
As of Friday, Trump had neither accepted nor rejected the Democrats’ proposal, according to the Democrats. He told them he would take a look. Trump will need Democratic votes either way, now or in the new year, for passage.
The mood on Capitol Hill has quickly shifted as newly elected members arrive to set up offices on Capitol Hill and dozens of Republicans head for the exits. Outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan’s pre-election prediction of a “big fight” over the wall has run up against the reality of the changed circumstances.
Thursday was supposed to be the House’s final day in session for the year, but lawmakers instead were told to return Wednesday night. Already Republican attendance during the lame-duck session has been spotty, and it’s unclear how many votes Ryan will be able to garner in the final days of the GOP’s majority in the House.
Even if a bill with the wall funding passes the House, it is almost certain to fail in the Senate, where Republicans hold a slim majority, and Democrats have pledged to block it from receiving the necessary 60 votes needed to advance.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the incoming minority leader, said on the House floor as lawmakers left for the long weekend that he thinks “going into a shutdown is stupid,” but he offered no immediate plan to resolve the standoff.
Fellow California Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, the top Democrat on a subcommittee for homeland security spending, said it makes no sense to be “squandering” $5 billion on the wall when the nation has so many other security vulnerabilities.
“Republicans are driving our nation to the brink of another disastrous government shutdown – at a time of great economic uncertainty and right in the middle of the holiday season,” Roybal-Allard said in the Democrats’ weekly address.
For now, Republicans still control the House, the Senate and the White House, she reminded listeners. “They have the responsibility and the power to keep our government open.”
If the two sides do not reach agreement, about one-quarter of the government would be affected, including the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Agriculture, State and Justice, as well as national parks.
O’Rourke, other Dems don’t want tent city’s contract renewed
By WILL WEISSERT
Monday, December 17
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Rep. Beto O’Rourke and four other Democratic members of Congress toured a remote tent city in West Texas on Saturday where they said that 2,700 immigrant teens are being held at a cost of roughly $1 million per day.
The lawmakers urged the nonprofit running the facility not to renew a federal contract that expires Dec. 31, a longshot request that could effectively shutter the camp. It was supposed to be temporary but has instead taken in more children and taken on a permanent feel with soccer fields, a dining facility and tents housing separate sleeping quarters for boys and girls.
O’Rourke — a Texan who has been mentioned as a potential 2020 presidential candidate after nearly upsetting Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in his deep-red state — was joined by U.S. Sens. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tina Smith of Minnesota, and California Rep. Judy Chu.
O’Rourke said he and his colleagues weren’t allowed to speak to the children in any meaningful way.
“They kind of nodded their heads, but what are they going to say when everyone around them is watching?” O’Rourke said after touring the facility. “But there was something in the look on their faces that we saw, the way that they weren’t really engaged in the sports that they were playing out on those fields.”
“We need to shut it down,” Chu added. “It is inhumane. It is a child prison. It has no right to exist.”
O’Rourke made no mention about his possible White House aspirations after making his fourth visit to the camp just outside Tornillo. He noted the area was about an hour’s drive from his native El Paso, which borders Mexico at the westernmost tip of Texas.
“It’s in a remote location on purpose so that the American people do not know what’s happening here,” O’Rourke told reporters.
The lawmakers said 2,700 boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 17 were being held at Tornillo. They described touring the tents housing the teens, but could only ask light questions. O’Rourke said he asked a few of them what countries they were from — Guatemala and Honduras, they said — and received assurances that the conditions were “OK.”
Tornillo opened as a temporary facility in June, amid what President Donald Trump’s administration described as an emergency situation on the U.S.-Mexico border. Since then, the contract keeping it open has been renewed, and the numbers of kids being held inside has grown, though determining how fast and by how much has proven difficult.
The lawmakers said the contractor running the facility, BCFS Health and Human Services, told them that the tent city has cost taxpayers $144 million since opening, or about $1 million a day.
The Democrats said they urged BCFS Health and Human Services to refuse to renew its contract with the U.S. government. But even if that happened, the lawmakers said they weren’t sure where the children being held at Tornillo would be transferred as a result.
The Associated Press previously reported that the Trump administration waved FBI fingerprint checks for caregivers and short-staffing mental health workers at Tornillo.
O’Rourke said Saturday that the contractor told him that a recent agreement with Texas now allows for state background checks, but that the facility still doesn’t have the capacity to do FBI fingerprint checks.
The lawmakers said many of the teens have family already in the United States who would like to take them. But federal authorities have begun fingerprinting and conducting background checks on would-be “sponsors,” resulting in 170 apprehensions on possible immigration violations.
They also said that even with the added scrutiny, the contractor said 1,300 children have relatives ready to take them but have remained at Tornillo due to unexplained federal delays.
O’Rourke said public pressure could force federal authorities to close Tornillo but in the meantime federal polices mean the country is “turning our backs on these people.”
We need to stand for border communities and vulnerable migrants seeking refuge
By Pedro Rios
On December 10, I stood at the U.S.-Mexico border alongside hundreds of faith leaders to protest the cruel and unjust treatment of migrants and the militarization of our border communities. As I watched Border Patrol agents arrest reverends, imams, rabbis, Quakers, and other people of faith, I thought back to what I witnessed a few weeks earlier.
I was near the San Diego border crossing when I saw Border Patrol agents fire tear gas canisters and flash bang grenades into a crowd of migrants gathered nearby. I saw a low-flying Customs and Border Protection helicopter use its rotors to push plumes of tear gas into a canal where many migrants had gathered. Even though I have been working to support and protect migrants and border communities for many years, I continue to be disturbed and horrified by these clear and egregious violations of people’s dignity and human rights.
These aggressive actions by federal agents were clearly intended to debilitate migrants, including children. But they also are part of a manufactured crisis the Trump administration is peddling – a false narrative that border communities are out of control that’s being used to justify more money for a needless border wall and deadly detention and deportation measures.
The consequences of this political posturing are devastating and dangerous, for migrants, for those of us who live in border communities, and for all residents of this country whose tax dollars are being diverted from programs that sustain communities to a militarized border that serves no one.
Border communities are feeling these impacts. According to the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, in the five hours that the cross-border traffic was stopped, more than $5.3 million were lost in revenue, just in San Ysidro.
Over the past four decades, policies under every presidential administration have systematically militarized southern border communities, criminalizing millions of immigrants and creating repressive conditions from California to Texas and beyond.
Just a week before the Border Patrol tear gassed migrants at the border, a Border Patrol agent was found not guilty for shooting and killing 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodríguez through the Nogales border fence in 2012, solidifying a message that Border Patrol agents can operate with impunity. And just days ago, a 7-year old girl from Guatemala died in Border Patrol custody from dehydration and shock.
The escalation of these policies – and the demand for billions of dollars to expand them – could lead to more disturbing cases like that of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez and Jackeline Caal.
This increased militarization coincides with dramatic efforts by the Trump Administration to restrict people’s ability to access asylum and curtail other forms of immigration. These artificially created bottlenecks in the asylum process are creating a humanitarian crisis. In Tijuana alone, there are more than 7,000 people waiting to present themselves at a port of entry, many of whom are vulnerable to safety issues.
People fleeing violence in Central America and elsewhere should be able to present themselves to immigration authorities to express their fears – not illegally turned away or criminalized for entering between ports of entry to seek refuge and asylum.
And deploying law enforcement or military personnel to the southern border – or giving additional spending authority to these agencies – endangers the rights of migrants and residents of border communities, wastes taxpayer dollars, and does nothing to make us safer.
This political posturing by the Trump Administration is dangerous because it sets a precedent that suggests militarization is an appropriate response to people seeking sanctuary. By influencing public opinion and normalizing the idea that is acceptable to criminalize migrants, real humanitarian needs are going unmet and lives and livelihoods are being destroyed on both sides of the border wall.
We don’t have to accept this reality. It is critically important that we confront the immorality of gassing and denying passage to the most vulnerable with principled action of our own. We can offer support and solidarity with those facing persecution. And we can demand that Congress take a stand by cutting funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.
More than 400 people of faith traveled to the border on Monday and put their bodies on the line to lift up the message that love knows no borders. But our efforts must not stop there. Upholding the dignity of border communities and those seeking sanctuary depends on everyone’s bold and courageous actions.
Pedro Rios is the director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S.-Mexico Border Program, based in San Diego.