House Democrats Demand Answers as Migrant Deaths Continue to Rise

Dec 23, 2019
In The News

WASHINGTON — House Democrats demanded documents from the Department of Homeland Security on Monday to investigate a “troubling pattern of abuse and poor treatment” of migrants, after the death of a 16-year-old Guatemalan detainee and other new revelations.

In letters sent to immigration and homeland security officials, the House Oversight and Reform Committee demanded to know how a teenage detainee, who had the flu and a 103-degree fever, could have been sent to a holding cell where he lay still next to a toilet for four hours, only to be discovered dead by his teenage cellmate.

Representative Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, the chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, also questioned the shifting explanations from Customs and Border Protection, a division of the Department of Homeland Security. Officials initially said agents discovered the body of the teenager, Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, during a welfare check. But surveillance video and additional documents, first obtained by ProPublica, revealed that to be untrue.

Customs and Border Protection officials also have yet to explain why they disregarded the recommendation of a nurse practitioner who asked that Mr. Hernandez Vasquez be re-evaluated and hospitalized if his condition worsened. Instead, he was left in his cell, where video showed him vomit before collapsing and lying motionless while his cellmate — also sick — slept under a foil blanket.

“The lack of treatment appears to be a flagrant violation of C.B.P.’s own detention standards and raises serious questions about whether D.H.S. is failing to treat children and adults with basic human dignity and compassion,” Ms. Maloney said in the letter to Chad F. Wolf, the acting secretary of homeland security.

Officials with the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Hernandez Vazquez was held in Customs and Border Protection custody for six days before his death, despite a policy that requires detainees to be held in such facilities for no more than 72 hours. The agency has argued it had to hold detainees for extended periods because shelters intended to hold children for longer periods were full and the Department of Homeland Security’s resources overall were exhausted.

Mr. Hernandez Vazquez entered the United States in May, during the busiest month in more than a decade, when more than 144,116 people were arrested at the southwestern border. Days later, he became the sixth migrant child to die in federal custody since President Trump took office.

An examination by The New York Times this year showed that years of warnings from both inside and outside the government on the protocols to assess the health of migrants have been largely ignored. Border Patrol agents and others who visited a facility in Clint, Texas, described crying children as well as cases of chickenpox, scabies and shingles among migrants, who often lacked diapers, toothpaste or soap.

Kevin K. McAleenan, then the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, was pressed about the poor conditions in July by the House oversight panel, which has been investigating the agency for months.

“None of us would have our children in that position,” said Representative Elijah E. Cummings, the chairman of the committee who has since died. “They are human beings.”

Customs and Border Protection does not provide flu vaccinations to migrants, arguing that the vulnerable population is supposed to be in its custody for only short periods of time. It has instead expanded its medical programs, with more than 250 medical officials working along the border.

The Democrats also demanded on Monday information from Immigration and Customs Enforcement on medical treatment provided to migrants after a newly revealed internal complaint said the agency had “systematically provided inadequate medical and mental health care and oversight to immigration detainees in facilities throughout the U.S.”

In a Department of Homeland Security memo, first obtained by BuzzFeed News, an agency whistle-blower said three people had died in ICE custody after receiving inadequate care. The official also said that an 8-year-old boy lost part of his forehead because of a delayed diagnosis and a man was prescribed the wrong medicine, resulting in him coughing up blood and being hospitalized.

On the same day the congressional committee demanded the documents, ICE said a Nigerian detainee was found dead on Saturday morning from apparent “self-inflicted strangulation.” Anthony Oluseye Akinyemi, 56, had been moved into ICE custody on Dec. 20 after being convicted of a sex offense and assault, according to the statement from ICE. He was in custody for less than 24 hours before his death.

April Grant, a spokeswoman for ICE, declined to comment, citing an agency policy to respond to congressional correspondence through official channels.