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Memorial for 6-year-old migrant girl who died in Az desert focuses on asylum policies

Late-afternoon light streamed through stained glass windows at Grace St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Sunday, as two members of the Tucson Sikh Society played a harmonium and drums during a memorial for a six-year-old girl who died in Arizona's desert after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border with her mother and sister mid-June.

The music was the center of a multi-denominational service at the church to mourn Gurupreet Kaur, who died on June 12 about one mile north of the border west of Quitobaquito Springs, a historic spring in a remote part of the 331,000-acre Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument about 110 miles southwest of Tucson.

The service also included a call from religious leaders for policy makers to shift the asylum laws and "end the policy" that "forces parents to make" the decision to cross Arizona's "perilous deserts" to seek asylum. 

"Our family is heartbroken by the loss of our daughter, Gurupreet Kaur. As we grieve, we please ask that you respect our privacy during this deeply painful time," said the girl's family in a statement read during the memorial. 

"We wanted a safer and better life for our daughter and we made the extremely difficult decision to seek asylum here in the United States. We trust that every parent, regardless of origin, color or creed, will understand that no mother or father ever puts their child in harm's way unless they are desperate." 

"We will carry the burden of the loss of our beloved Gurupreet for a lifetime, but we will also continue to hold onto the hope that America remains a compassionate nation grounded in the immigrant ideas that make diversity this nation's greatest strength." 

Gurupreet was traveling with her mother and eight-year-old sister, part of a small group of Indian women who crossed into the U.S. that day. At some point, the girl succumbed to the heat, and her mother was forced to leave her daughter, as she tried to seek water as temperatures reached 108 degrees. 

The event Sunday, led by Sat Bir Kaur Khalsa, included members of the Sikh and Catholic faith, as well members of the Protestant and Baha'i communities. 

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"I'm honored to have the Sikh community here," said Rev. Steve Keplinger, the head of Grace St. Paul. "This is their service, I'm just here to help." He asked the community to give thanks for the girl's life, and the "gift she was for her parents, and this community." 

"May her soul blend with the divine, and give her eternal peace," Keplinger said. "This evening, may we pray for her parents, and give thanks for her immense courage, and give thanks for striving for a safer and better life for their precious daughter." 

And, her asked for courage and strength for the Sikh community, "in the midst of this turmoil and loss." 

"We pray for this nation, we pray that the death of this precious child will awaken a country to change, will awaken the leaders of this land to treat every person seeking asylum with dignity and respect," he said. "We pray that the immigration laws in this land will change as a result of this tragedy, and we pray that no other parent needs to choose to make a perilous trek across our desert to protect their child from harm, to give their children safety." 

Keplinger asked for the U.S. government to "end the policy" the forces parents to make such decisions, and prayed that any individual seeking asylum could do so without challenging the wilderness.

Earlier reports of the girl's death described her as seven years old, based on mistaken information released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection staffers.

Keplinger's comments were followed by devotional songs from the Sikh tradition played by Gurpreet Singh and Harminder Singh Phull, as well as a proclamation from Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild that marked Sunday, June 30, as a day "to honor the life of Gurupreet and all those who have died seeking asylum."  

The girl's death came as Tucson Sector officials have become increasingly worried about people—especially parents with children, or children traveling alone—crossing in the rugged terrain of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument near Lukeville, Ariz., after encountering large groups of migrants. 

Since September, agency officials have reported large groups of families, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border along a lonely part of the wildlife refuge, where Mexico's Highway 2 runs just 30 feet from the border allowing smugglers to drop people off, often using buses or passenger vans, and sending them north. 

While temperatures throughout the winter were low, agency officials have warned that a sudden spike in temperatures, matched with the difficulty to rapidly move people from the remote desert to Border Patrol stations would be a dangerous combination. 

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As temperatures climbed, Gurupreet and her mother and sister crossed into the U.S. with two other Indian women. At some point, the two women lost track of the girls and their mother, and they were taken into custody. The women said they were traveling with a mother and her children, and "become separated from them hours earlier." 

Agents began searching the area, and within hours they found the girl's remains. 

As Pima County Sheriff's deputies recovered her remains, the agency expanded its search, but late that evening the only sign of the girl's mother and her sister were footprints at the border. Border Patrol agents, along with Mexican authorities continued searching until late the next day, when the pair crossed back into the U.S. and were taken into custody by Border Patrol agents. 

Federal officials did not release the names of Gurupreet's mother or sister, however, the girl's father was later identified by the Sikh Coalition as A. Singh. Singh has been in the United States since 2013 and has an asylum application pending before the New York immigration court. 

The girl's death comes as the number of Indian migrants intercepted by Border Patrol and customs officers has rapidly increased. In the first six months of fiscal 2019, the number of people from Indian has tripled, rising to 8,997 from 2,943 a year earlier. This includes around 461 people in the Tucson Sector. 

However, advocates remain unsure about why more Indian nationals are attempting to seek asylum in the United States. 

"It's economics, now the word is out there that you can seek asylum, and you know, more or less people think this is a way to automatically get into this country," said Gurpreet Singh, after the service for Gurupreet ended. "Nothing has happened in India, or changed in India." 

The U.S. has seen an increase in immigrants from Asian and Central American countries. Undocumented immigration from Mexico has dropped so significantly over a decade that Mexicans no longer make up the majority of those living in the U.S. illegally, according to a Pew Research Center report.

Advocates have also argued that CBP's policy of "metering," or limiting the number of people who can seek asylum through U.S. ports, has forced desperate people to attempt to cross between the ports. 

While Border Patrol apprehensions have risen from month to month, climbing nearly 34 percent from April to May, people declared "inadmissible" by ports officials have remained relatively static or even declined from month to month, dropping 29 percent from March to April and climbing just 12 percent from April to May. 

Along with Gurupreet's family, an El Salvadorian man, Oscar Alberto Martínez and his 23-year-old daughter Angie Valeria downed on June 26 in the Rio Grande River near Brownsville, Texas. 

An image of Martínez and his daughter, her body tucked under his shirt and her arm wrapped around his neck, became a central image of the plight of migrants, though many balked at the image's wide distribution. 

According to the Mexico's National Institute of Migration, around 6,611 people are waiting to come into El Paso, while 5,300 are waiting in Tijuana and another 3,168 are waiting near Calexico. 

"The reason why this happens is the unscrupulous smuggler organizations went and dropped these people in the border in a very remote area," said Jesus Vasavilbaso, a spokesman for the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector in June. "They were dropped about 17 miles west of the port of entry of Lukeville."

"The smuggler organizations are lying to these people, promising that they’re going to be able to get legal status when that’s not the case."

Vasavilbaso said people traveling in such harsh conditions often are acting out of desperation.

"We’re part of the community, and we also have children, so it breaks our hearts when something like this happens," he said. "Regardless of your legal status, we don’t want anybody to get hurt out there."

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When asked what it meant for the Sikh community to lose someone so young, Singh said that he didn't think that people in India knew yet, but "here, everyone kinda of expressed their sadness, and my personal feelings is that they shouldn't do what they did, they shouldn't try to come this way," he said. 

"Economics is one thing, life is another," Singh said. 

"There has to be a way that we recognize the most basic parts of our humanity and vulnerability," said Juanita Molina, the executive director of the Border Action Network. "She was so young," Molina said, adding that Gurupreet's death "speaks to an ongoing issue with deaths in the desert. People are dying further away from the roads and towns," she said. "Our migration is shifting and changing, we're seeing more families coming from further and further away, which makes them more physically vulnerable.

"This is where we see a six-year-old child coming into the extreme heat, the desert, the dehydration, everything that people have to do to cope to come in here and yet we see thousands of people who have died here in Tucson here on our Arizona border," she said.

Molina said that she learned from hospice care, that "you don't lose someone all at once, you lose them a little bit every day."

"And so when you multiply the grief, the sadness of thousands of people losing that little bit every day,  think about the impact that that has on migration on our communities," she said. "It's more important than ever to come together." 

"We will never forget her," Molina said. 

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1 comment on this story

Jul 2, 2019, 10:56 am
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How come we never have announced and government participated memorials for those killed by illegals?  I never see the church scheduling public memorials for those killed by illegal alien drunk drivers or illegal aliens with illegal firearms.  How come?  Shouldn’t we recognize that those killed by those who should not be here are entitled to special recognitionas well? 

They are likewise victims of policy and should be recognized as such.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Sat Bir Kaur Khalsa leads a memorial for Gurupreet Kaur, a 6-year-old Indian girl who died on June 14, as the head of the Border Action Network, Juanita Molina, listens.