December 6, 2019
Last year, a 16 year-old boy from Guatemala died while in the custody of Customs and Border Protection. The full story on Carlos Hernandez Vasquez's migration, detention and death is told at ProPublica.
The context for this death is important to recall. In May and June of last year border apprehensions were very high due to an increase in people seeking asylum from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala - particularly families and older children traveling alone. The administration’s response was to keep everybody locked up as long as they could get away with it - though they blamed extended detention times on backlogs in other parts of the system.
This was particularly true for “unaccompanied minors” who are typically transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement fairly quickly once picked up by Border Patrol. At the time, this probably meant being placed in a tent on a military base in Homestead, Florida - but it could have meant placement in a shelter until a family member or community sponsor was located to take custody. In any event, ORR was way behind in finding places for kids due to changes administration policy - NOT increased movement at the border! ORR wait times in detention had doubled by November of 2018, before the border spike occurred, as the administration sought to make it harder for sponsors to be found - and was even using the system to entrap unauthorized migrants who might come forward to register as a sponsor for a child relative.
The result of this was border patrol stations collectively detaining close to 20,000 people a day by early June - when CBP capacity is more like 6,000 a day. Even in the best of times border patrol detention facilities are among the worst conditions most immigrants will face. The pictures we’ve all seen of children and families shivering under mylar blankets behind fences are border patrol facilities. The lousy conditions are intentional - it is part of a broader framework of deterrence: By making people as uncomfortable as possible, it is hoped they will simply “self-deport” and discourage others from even trying. Deterrence has guided policy since long before Trump.
That said, CBP detention is only supposed to last for 72 hours. It is a transitional space for people apprehended at the Border while decisions are made about what happens next. They will either be released, transferred to another form of detention, or deported. Given the administration’s policies, wait times at BDP facilities dragged into three weeks and more by June of 2019. The result was horrid conditions - and death.
We know this because attorneys responsible for monitoring the administration’s compliance with the Flores Settlement Agreement, which governs the treatment of immigrant children in federal custody, toured a facility in Clint, TX last May and found a four year old who had not bathed in weeks and children taking care of infants, among other massive violations of health and safety standards for the care of kids. The reports and images that followed led to a massive outcry against the detention of children. For some of the kids though, the concern was too little too late.
One of those children was Carlos Hernandez Vasquez, who died in CBP custody. Officially he died from complications related to having the flu. But based on video released from ProPublica, CBP also lied about preventive care and general treatment of Carlos while in custody. In the Guardian this morning:
Video of the US Border Patrol cell where a 16-year-old from Guatemala died of the flu shows the teen writhing and collapsing on the floor for hours before he was found dead.
The footage published Thursday by ProPublica calls into question the border patrol’s treatment of Carlos Hernandez Vasquez, who was found dead 20 May.
According to ProPublica, Carlos staggered to the toilet in his cell in the middle of the night at the border patrol station in Weslaco, Texas, and collapsed nearby. He remained still for more than four hours until his cellmate awakened at 6.05am and discovered him on the floor.
The cellmate quickly got the attention of a border patrol agent, followed shortly by a physician’s assistant who attempted a single chest compression. Weslaco police reports obtained by ProPublica say the physician’s assistant quickly determined Carlos was dead.
The border patrol’s statement on the day of Carlos’ death says the teenager was “found unresponsive this morning during a welfare check”.
The video shows Carlos stopped moving at 1.39am on 20 May, 15 minutes after he toppled forward and landed face-first on the cell’s concrete floor. Border patrol logs say an agent performed a welfare check at 2.02am, 4.09am, and 5.05am.
Norma Jean Farley, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, told ProPublica that she was told the agent looked through the window but didn’t go inside.
CBP would not comment on the case, as it is under a Department of Homeland Security investigation into the deaths of Carlos and other children in CBP custody last year.
But CBP’s former acting commissioner, John Sanders, said he believed the US government “could have done more” to prevent the deaths of Carlos and at least five other children who died after being apprehended by border agents.
“I really think the American government failed these people. The government failed people like Carlos,” Sanders told ProPublica. “I was part of that system at a very high level, and Carlos’ death will follow me for the rest of my life.”
I certainly appreciate Sander’s candor. But I have to wonder how anyone can continue to participate in this system. Immigrant detention means that people die. In Carlos’ case, in the cases of the other five children who died last year in CBP custody, or in the case of the two asylum seekers already dead this year in ICE custody (starting Oct 1), all were simply seeking shelter and protection. They got thrown into a gulag instead.