Deaths of migrant kids underscore risks of hieleras

By: - December 28, 2018 2:45 pm

A June 2018 photo from a Border Patrol’s holding area at the Tucson Coordinating Center shows an overcrowded room with a person laying in toilet area while another uses the toilet. Credit: Court documents

Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin, 7, died on Dec. 8 in an El Paso hospital. Felipe Gómez Alonzo, 8, died on Christmas Eve at a medical center in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The children, both Guatemalan migrants, were in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection — Jakelin for two days and Felipe for six.  

Groups in Arizona have for years sounded the alarm about CBP’s inadequate handling of medical needs of migrants inside its holding facilities, commonly known as hieleras (Spanish for iceboxes) because of the cold temperatures in the rooms that have concrete walls and floors, with no beds or private bathrooms.

Recently, with the release of thousands children and parents to Phoenix-area churches as a record number of families cross the border, several community leaders and volunteers shared accounts with the Arizona Mirror of sick migrant kids, who in some cases needed hospitalization.

Thursday night, a 17-month-old girl who U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had just dropped off to a church was taken to Phoenix Children’s Hospital for pneumonia, said Jason Odhner, a medic who has worked for over 10 years with multiple Arizona organizations that receive migrant families and children released from hieleras.

“She’ll be ok,” he said. “But if they’d kept her in the hielera another day or two, she might have been in serious danger.” Odhner said the girl spent four days in custody.  

In a statement on Felipe’s death, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said no child has died in CBP custody in over a decade.

“It is now clear that migrants, particularly children, are increasingly facing medical challenges and harboring illness caused by their long and dangerous journey,” Nielsen said. Over the years, CBP has denied the inhumane conditions at its holding facilities.

What do hieleras look like?

Several migrant families interviewed by the Mirror since October at Phoenix-area churches shared details about their experiences in ICE custody: cold rooms, no potable drinking water, undercooked cups of noodles or just bread for meals, and overcrowded spaces where disease spreads quickly, especially among children. Some told the Mirror they were in custody for less than 72 hours (CBP’s limit), but others said they were held for longer, up to 15 days in one case.

“As a medical professional, it is surprising to me that more people have not died yet,” Odhner said. “Between these conditions causing dehydration, hypothermia and malnutrition under the custody of the federal government… It’s a recipe for severe illness that can compromise the body in a lot of ways.”

An ongoing class action lawsuit filed in 2015 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona against DHS challenges the overcrowded, cold and unsanitary conditions in the holding areas of CBP’s Tucson sector, which spans 262 miles from Yuma County to the New Mexico border.

In 2016, a judge unsealed photo evidence of holding rooms in several facilities. Some of the photos show adults huddled in an overcrowded room, a woman changing a baby’s diaper over a Mylar sheet on a trash-strewn concrete floor and a baby crawling in a cell near the toilet.

Credit: court records/American Immigration Council

Recent photos from April, May and June, submitted to the court in August, and also show overcrowded rooms, including a person laying in the toilet area while another uses a toilet.

Migrant children released in Phoenix sick, some hospitalized

Volunteer medics who attend the releases of migrants to the churches told the Mirror they’ve seen many children with fevers, congestion, coughs, dehydration or viral infections that can be cured easily, though there have been more serious cases.

Pastor James Pennington of First Church of Christ told the Mirror in November the story of a boy, about a year old, that had to be hospitalized. He was part of a group of migrant families, all from Guatemala, his congregation welcomed in October.

“There was a little boy who was really ill. He was throwing up, he was lethargic, he couldn’t keep his eyes open,” Pennington said. “[At the hospital] we found out he was dehydrated, he had pneumonia. He was on oxygen and IV for about five days… The doctors and physicians told us that, if we wouldn’t have brought him then, he probably would’ve died.”

Pennington’s church has been a sanctuary for immigrants facing deportation for several years, and is among the more than a dozen faith centers receiving the large groups of families released by ICE over the past three months.

Sharon Martin, a nurse at Banner MD Anderson in Gilbert, was part of a medical team at Central Christian Church in Mesa where Central American families arrived one November night. Martin said she saw families with headaches, fevers, upper respiratory infections and maybe the flu.

“You worry, is Tylenol enough?” Martin told the Mirror in November.

The first night that Pastor Angel Campos received 20 migrant families at his Monte Vista Baptist Church in October, no medical staff was on hand. One of the volunteers ran out to a nearby store to buy children’s Advil and cough syrup when they noticed the children had coughs and congestion.

DHS cough syrup
Maria Acevedo gives her daughter, Ashley Maria, cough syrup at a Phoenix church on Oct. 9. They were among the hundreds of families in Arizona that are being released from immigration custody to community groups in the Phoenix and Tucson area. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Campos said he receives large groups of families several times a week. There’s now at least one medical professional present to examine the families who might need it. Sometimes, children need to go the hospital, he said. Lately, Campos said he’s observed people who are released from ICE custody to be in better health conditions than they were in October.

“There’s been improvement, and it’s colder now, but they are coming in healthier… What does that tell you? That they’re treating them better,” Campos said.

Nielsen orders review of CBP’s medical procedures

Nielsen is scheduled to travel to Yuma Saturday, according to the Associated Press.

She has increased medical checks on children in CBP custody. Nielsen also requested the Centers for Disease Control determine what illnesses migrants are experiencing and how area hospitals can prepare, the US Coast Guard Medical Corps to assess CBP’s medical processes and the Department of Defense to provide additional medical professionals.

DHS has also launched investigations into the deaths of Jakelin and Felipe, the Washington Post reported.

Jannette Buhl, a volunteer medic who saw migrant families arriving at a Phoenix church in October, said a review of what went wrong is important.

“In my head, I can see scenarios where nobody is at fault, where communication was off,” Buhl said. “Working in health care is a fine line between parents, kids, resources and busy-ness.”

Buhl, who has worked in refugee camps in Africa, said cultural barriers also complicate medical situations.

Guatemala’s Ministry of Foreign Relations said Jakelin’s family mainly speaks the indigenous language of Q’eqchi’. Felipe’s dad speaks Chuj, another Mayan language, better than Spanish, the Washington Post reported.

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