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Federal watchdog will investigate 7-year-old's death BP custody in New Mexico

A federal watchdog will investigate the death of a 7-year-old girl, who died on Dec. 8, after she was taken into Border Patrol custody along with her father and around 160 others  in a remote part of southern New Mexico. 

The Office of Inspector General for Homeland Security announced on Friday that it would investigate the death of Jakelin Caal Maquin, a Guatemalan girl, who died from dehydration and septic shock at a hospital in El Paso. 

In a short letter, the OIG said that "at the culmination of its investigation, DHS OIG will provide a final report to the DHS Secretary, the Congress, and the public." 

The agency also said that in addition to the specific circumstances of the child's death, the agency "will continue its ongoing program of unannounced inspections of Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities. The results of these inspections will also be reported publicly." 

The announcement came just hours after the Washington Post reported that Caal had died in Border Patrol custody, and right on the heels of an announcement Friday morning that U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva and others were calling for an investigation. 

"CBP and ICE continue to operate with a startlingly low level of transparency and accountability, and that must change," said Grijalva in a statement. "I demand a thorough, independent investigation into the death of this young girl, and that those responsible face the full consequences," Grijalva said. 

He also called on DHS to "immediately instruct Border Patrol" agents to "cease any interference with humanitarian organizations providing migrants with food, water, and medical attention," a reference to complaints from No More Deaths, a humanitarian aid organization that leaves food and water in remote parts of southern Arizona in an effort to stem the tide of migrant deaths. 

However, in the last two years, Border Patrol has interfered with No More Deaths, beginning with surveillance of the Byrd Camp, a remote outpost near the border and south of Arivaca and followed by the arrest of Scott Warren, a volunteer at "The Barn" a building near Ajo, Arizona, No More Deaths, and others have used as a base of operations. Warren was charged with harboring two men who crossed into the U.S. illegally, and faces trial in January. 

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"On behalf of the Department of Homeland Security, our sincerest condolences go out to the family of the child," said a CBP spokesman. "Border Patrol agents took every possible step to save the child’s life under the most trying of circumstances. As fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, we empathize with the loss of any child." 

He added that "as we have always said, traveling north illegally is extremely dangerous." 

"Drug cartels, human smugglers and the elements pose deadly risks to anyone who comes across the border illegally. Border Patrol always takes care of individuals in their custody and does everything in their power to keep them safe," he said. 

He noted that every year the agency "saves hundreds of people who are overcome by the elements between our ports of entry." 

In the fiscal year of 2017, Border Patrol said that it rescued 3,221 people, all of them in the agency's nine sectors in the southwest. This includes 44 people in the El Paso sector, where Caal died. 

 In the Tucson Sector, the agency said that it had rescued 750 people this year. 

"Unfortunately, despite our best efforts and the best efforts of the medical team treating the child, we were unable to stop this tragedy from occurring. Once again, we are begging parents to not put themselves or their children at risk attempting to enter illegally," he said. "Please present yourselves at a port of entry and seek to enter legally and safely." 

The spokesman also said that CBP's Office of Professional Responsibility would review the incident. 

Jakelin, who had turned 7 just three days earlier, and her father, Nery Gilberto Caal, 29, were from the Mayan Q'eqchi' community of Raxruhá, located in Guatmala's Alta Verapaz region, CNN reported. 

In a timeline released by the agency, nearly three hours passed from the time the girl's father reported that she was "sick and vomiting" to the time she was transported by helicopter to an El Paso hospital, largely because agents decided to transport her to the Border Patrol's Lordsburg station first. 

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The incident began when three Border Patrol agents apprehended 163 people near Forward Operating Base Bounds, in the boot heel of New Mexico near the Antelope Wells Port of Entry, a remote and lonely stretch of terrain south of Interstate 10. 

The agents moved the group to "covered area" within the Bounds FOB, and agents "conducted an initial screening" which includes an interview and "observation of the detainee to identify any health or safety problems to ensure that they receive necessary medical care," the agency said. 

"During the screening, the father denied that either he or his daughter were ill," the agency said, noting that his "denial" was recorded on a form. "At this time, they were offered water and food and had access to restrooms," the agency said. 

As neither the forward operating base nor the port at Antelope Wells were able to hold the group, the agents decided to transport them to the Border Patrol station about 93 miles north in Lordsburg, N.M., about 90 minutes away. 

At 10 p.m., a bus left the Lordsburg station and headed toward the Bounds FOB. Because the bus could only hold 50 people at a time, the agents decided the load the bus with the unaccompanied children—kids traveling without parents or guardians—and bus them back to the station, leaving Caal and her father, along with other families at the forward operating base. 

The bus returned at 4 a.m., and after an hour, the second group of detainees were preparing to depart when Caal's father said that "his child had become sick and vomiting." 

"Out of an abundance of caution, agents immediately requested that an EMT meet the bus on arrival at the Lordsburg station," the agency said. 

It took 90 minutes for the bus to arrive at the Lordsburg station, arriving at 6:30 a.m.

"At that point, the father notified agents that the child was not breathing," the agency said. 

Border Patrol EMTs began medical care and requested an ambulance, and the girl's temperature spiked to 105.7 degrees. 

Agents providing medical care revived the child twice while waiting for an ambulance, which arrived at 6:40 a.m, then the agents decided to send her by helicopter to a hospital, which arrived at 7:30 and left the station at 7:48 a.m. 

She arrived at Providence Children’s Hospital in El Paso, Texas at 8:51 a.m., the agency said. The girl went into cardiac arrest, but was revived at the hospital's pediatric ICU. 

Caal died the next morning at 12:35 a.m. on Dec. 8.  

"The initial indication from the Providence Hospital is that she passed due to sepsis shock," the agency said. "Her father was with her." 

"As stated above, the entire DHS community offers their condolences to the family of this child. We thank those Border Patrol agents who rendered life extending aide, and the first responders and emergency medical professionals in New Mexico and Texas who did all they could to save this child," the spokesman said. 

The agency said that in November alone, Border Patrol agents apprehended 25,172 people traveling as "family units," including 6,434 in the El Sector alone, a wide-ranging sector that goes from the Arizona-New Mexico border to the western tip of Texas. 

Marked by difficult terrain and few highways in Mexico, the southern part of New Mexico has often been quiet, even as other sectors have seen increasing numbers of families walking across the border to seek asylum. 

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In the area near Antelope Wells, parts of the border are marked by barbed-wire fences and "Normandy" barriers designed to stump vehicles from driving through the desert. 

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said that the agency's holding cells are "incompatible" with the increasing numbers of families that come into Border Patrol custody. 

"Our Border Patrol stations were built decades ago to handle mostly male single adults in custody, not families and children,"  McAleenan said.

In the Tucson Sector, the agency faces a class-action lawsuit over the conditions in these holding cells after advocates sued the agency, saying that migrants,  including women and children, were regularly held more than 24 hours in detention cells that were often dirty and overcrowded, leading to conditions that advocates call "inhumane, punitive, and unconstitutional." 

A federal judge agreed with their complaints, and issued a preliminary injunction against the Border Patrol, saying that advocates have "presented persuasive evidence that the basic human needs of detainees are not being met" in Tucson Sector holding cells.

"This horrific situation must be a wake-up call to all elected officials. Instead of wasting time, money and energy on a useless border wall, we must work now to enact comprehensive immigration reform that puts families and children first," Grijalva said. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

The remote desert in the boot-heel of New Mexico near the Antelope Wells Port of Entry.