U.S. Customs and Border Protection has not consistently followed new guidelines for medical care of migrant children and spent some of the agency’s money designated for “medical care” on unrelated items like printers, speakers and its canine program, according to a new federal investigation.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office, an independent “congressional watchdog,” found gaps in care across border facilities. Border officials also chose to go against a recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to give the flu vaccine to children who crossed the border into the United States.
The GAO released the findings Wednesday, as members of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee held a hearing as part of an ongoing investigation of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) policies in light of the deaths of two children at the border in December 2018.
The children, 8-year-old Felipe Alonzo-Gomez and 7-year-old Jakelin Caal, were both Guatemalan and died in different CBP holding facilities in New Mexico and Texas.
“The simple reality is that children shouldn’t be locked up by our government,” U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Florida said in an email. “This administration’s anti-immigrant hysteria has led to deeply inhumane treatment of asylum seekers and others who are seeking legal status here in the United States.”
Demings, who is under consideration to be the vice presidential candidate for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, is a member of the committee but did not question witnesses at the hearing.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Lesko, an Arizona Republican who sits on the committee, called the children’s deaths tragic but said the federal government isn’t necessarily at fault. “We should start blaming the cartels, don’t you think, and they should be at least partially accountable for children’s death,” she said at the hearing.
Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat, asked the GAO to look into the matter in the wake of reports showing what he called an “appalling disregard for the lives of migrant children” at the border. He tweeted Wednesday that the funding for the U.S. Homeland Security Department — which oversees CBP — must carry “clear directives and restrictions to ensure transparency and accountability.”
The Inspector General of the Homeland Security Department released its own findings Wednesday that both children died of natural causes related to the flu and bacterial infections. The Inspector General found there was no misconduct or malfeasance from border patrol agents.
But Dr. Fiona Danaher, a pediatrician who Democrats asked to review the records, said the agency needs more policies in place to protect children.
“Death by natural causes does not mean death was inevitable,” said Danaher, an instructor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
Democratic lawmakers grilled witnesses from the GAO and Inspector General’s office on whether CBP equips its agents to identify when a child might need further medical help.
“CBP did not provide officers and agents with training to identify medical distress in children, is that correct?” Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Democrat from New Orleans and a member of the committee, asked.
The Homeland Security Department’s Inspector General, Joseph Cuffari, said agents are trained in basic first aid, CPR and trauma care. They had no pediatric training.
Tennessee Republican Rep. Mark Green, a physician, said putting more medical staff at the border may be an unreasonable ask in a country already facing a shortage of doctors in rural areas.
“Where in the world are we going to get the doctors to put somebody at every single crossing?” Green asked.
Richmond opened his remarks with criticism of that perspective.
“It is a proverbial Trumpism, pitting communities against each other. I guess that is where we are going in terms of access to doctors. I just won’t entertain it,” Richmond said. “We are the greatest country in the world.”
Gaps in care
The deaths happened in the midst of a surge at the border that backed up the immigration system last year. Read more