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Feds probe after Haitian migrant dies from pneumonia, COVID days after being taken into BP custody

A migrant died from respiratory distress caused by pneumonia and COVID-19 at the Yuma Regional Medical Center several days after he was taken into custody by a Border Patrol agent, officials said. Federal officials are investigating his treatment.

The man, who has not been named, was detained from Jan. 20 until Jan. 29 and spent several days inside the agency's Yuma Sector Centralized Processing Center, a 90,000-square-foot tent-like facility, as well as five days at the area hospital.

The man, a Haitian migrant, was shuttled back and forth between the immigration holding center and the hospital. Federal officials said they are investigating his death. Civil rights groups have repeatedly sued Customs and Border Protection over earlier allegations of a widespread lack of appropriate medical care for detainees. A federal judge found that conditions in BP facilities in the Tucson area were "presumptively punitive" and violated the Constitution.

The man was one of 16 people taken into custody by a U.S. Border Patrol agent about two miles northwest of the San Luis border crossing on Thursday, Jan. 20. The group was taken to the Yuma Sector Centralized Processing Center by 4 p.m., according to a timeline released by CBP.

Around 7:22 p.m., a medical provider contracted by CBP evaluated the man. With the help of a Haitian Creole interpreter, the man said he "had not eaten well for the past five months, could not tolerate smells, and was experiencing abdominal pain."

CBP said the medical contractor gave the man an electrolyte drink, and said "his vitals improved." Medical personnel continued to monitor the man, however by 9:01 p.m., the man told them he was "unable to eat, and was experiencing muscle pain, abdominal pain, and fatigue."

CBP's medical contractor recommended sending the man to a hospital for further attention, and he was transported to the Yuma Regional Medical Center the next day.

The man remained at the medical center for five days, and received care for cholecystitis—an inflammation of the gallbladder often caused by gallstone that blocks bile from leaving. He was also diagnosed with COVID-19, CBP officials said.

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The man stayed at the hospital while under CBP's watch, officials said.

On Jan. 26, around 9:28 a.m., the man was released from the hospital, and taken back to CBP's Central Processing Center. The next day, he was treated again by CBP contractors, and given medication for upper respiratory congestion and fever.

Two days after he had been released from the hospital, the man told CBP's medical contractor that he was experiencing chills, fever and nausea. In response, the contractor recommended hospital care around 6:17 p.m. Around 10 hours later, the man was transported back to the hospital, and was again admitted to YRMC at 3:51 a.m. on Jan 29.

CBP said the man was seen by CBP-contracted medical personnel on five separate occasions. 

He remained at the hospital while he received medical treatment for COVID-19, pneumonia, and cholecystitis, officials said.

While he was in the hospital, officials issued a Notice to Appear/Own Recognizance, a document that released the man from CBP custody and required him to attend a court hearing in the future.

On Feb. 2, 2022, at approximately 5:03 p.m., the man died from his illness. He was declared dead by Yuma Regional Medical Center staffers, CBP said.

Six days after the man died, CBP's Office of Professional Responsibility received notification of the death, and began reviewing the incident, along with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General.

The Centralized Processing Center is a "soft-sided" facility—essentially a large-scale series of tents—that was established in August 2021 to "safely and expeditiously" process migrants in Border Patrol custody. The 90,000-square-foot facility sits on five acres just outside the Border Patrol's Yuma Sector headquarters, and was set up after CBP began dealing with "a steady increase in border encounters from the Western Hemisphere due in part to worsening economic conditions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters affecting the area."

This is the second time the Yuma Sector has set up the temporary facility, following 2019 when the agency decided to set up a "tent-like facility" in Yuma during the Trump administration.

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For years, immigration and civil rights advocates have argued that U.S. Customs and Border Protection—Border Patrol's parent agency—routinely fails to care for people in custody. This includes a long-running class-action that ended in February 2020, when a federal judge ruled that conditions in Border Patrol's Tucson Sector stations are "presumptively punitive and violate the Constitution."

Similarly, the American Civil Liberties Union has collected dozens of complaints on behalf of hundreds of migrants, who said from 2017 until mid-2020, their medical needs were often ignored.

This includes not just adults, but also children who suffer from what the American Immigration Council called a "systematic failure to provide adequate medical care."

In one case, a 16-year-old boy died from the flu in Border Patrol's custody in El Paso in 2019, and the Office of the Inspector General with the Department of Homeland Security found that officials did not check on the boy and left him on the floor of his cell, despite orders from a nurse practitioner to check on him every two hours.

The man’s death comes after Biden administration officials deported nearly 20,000 Haitians from the U.S., largely people who were living outside of the earthquake-torn country, and then attempted to come to the U.S. to seek asylum, or economic opportunity. As the Washington Office of Latin America wrote, on Feb. 17, the Biden administration hit a “sad and stunning milestone,” sending 20,000 people from the U.S. to Haiti on 198 flights since last September.

In January, CBP officials encountered 111,437 across the U.S.-Mexico border, and nearly three-fourths were single adults, officials said. Officials said that around 78,486 people were immediately expelled from the U.S. under Title 42—a public health order ostensibly supported by the CDC that allows CBP officials to rapidly deport those who crossed into the U.S. if they had traveled through a country with COVID-19 infections.

Among those, around 75,455 people were processed under Title 8, which includes people who were prosecuted for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, and people who were allowed to seek asylum under U.S. law. This includes about 23,462 people who entered the U.S. as families, and were allowed to stay in the U.S. pending their asylum claim. Another 8,777 children, traveling without parents or guardians, were allowed to stay in the U.S., and were handed over to federal officials at the Administration for Children and Families, a part of the U.S. Health and Human Services.

Most of the people who attempted to travel through Yuma in January were from countries other than Mexico and three Central American nations, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Of around 23,489 encounters, more than 21,000 were from countries beyond Mexico and Latin America.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A Border Patrol agent leads reporters through a central processing center in Tucson, Ariz. one of a few facilities setup in 2021 as the Biden administration attempted to manage an influx of migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexico border.

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