May 22, 2019

Warren Demands Answers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection Following Recent Deaths of Children Detained at Border

"The three fatalities this month reveal that current efforts to protect children held in U.S. custody after entering the country are failing."

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington, DC - United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) yesterday sent a letter to John P. Sanders, Acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), regarding reports over the past week that two children died in CBP custody. The fatalities are the fourth and fifth reported deaths in the last six months of children who had been held by CBP, with three fatalities just in the month of May. 

"The deaths of five children who had been in CBP care in six months are appalling, and you owe the public an explanation and a full accounting for the causes and circumstances of their deaths," wrote Senator Warren.

On May 14, 2019, a 2.5-year-old Guatemalan boy died after being apprehended by Border Patrol agents at the U.S.-Mexico border and reportedly spending several weeks in the hospital. According to a Guatemalan official, the boy "spent three days in federal custody (and) appeared to have developed a form of pneumonia." Less than one week later, on May 20, 2019, 16-year old Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez died at the Weslaco Border Patrol Station in Texas. Mr. Vasquez was reportedly found unresponsive six days after being transported to the facility, and the cause of death is currently unknown.

These two deaths come in the wake of the December 2018 deaths of 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin and 8-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonzo, who died after being taken into CBP custody, and the death earlier this month of 16-year-old Juan de León Gutiérrez "days after arriving at an Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter."

Following the first two reported fatalities, then-Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced "a series of extraordinary protective measures" to be put in place, including increased screening of children in custody and assistance from and coordination with the U.S. Coast Guard Medical Corps, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Defense. 

During a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border in June 2018, Senator Warren visited the McAllen Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, where she witnessed children being held in appalling conditions by CBP at the height of the Trump Administration's family separation policy.  In December 2018, she wrote to the DHS Inspector General calling for the investigation into the children's deaths to be conducted rigorously and expeditiously. This review is under way, but it is not clear when it will be completed.

"In the interim," Senator Warren wrote in today's letter to CBP, "Congress and the public deserve answers about the steps you are taking to protect children in CBP custody. Children are dying, and CBP must do more to end this string of tragedies."

The Senator requested written answers to the following questions and a staff-level briefing on the matter by June 4, 2019:

  1. What is the implementation status of the "extraordinary protective measures" announced by Secretary Nielsen on December 26, 2018?
  2. In the wake of the three deaths of children in May 2019, what additional steps will you be taking to protect individuals held in U.S. custody at the southern border?
  3. Have CBP officials conducted a review of these three recent fatalities?  If so, what were the findings of this review?
  4. Please provide a specific timeline of the three children's fatalities that have occurred in May 2019, including information on when the children were detained, when they were screened for illnesses or health conditions, when they or their parents first reported health problems, and what actions were taken in these cases by CBP officials.
  5. Did CBP or other staff involved follow all relevant DHS rules and guidelines for apprehension, detention, and health screening in the case of the three fatalities that occurred in May 2019?
  6. Aside from the five cases noted above, have there been any other cases in the past five years of children who either were detained at CBP facilities at the time of their death, or had been detained at any point prior to their death?  If so, please provide a list of all such cases, including a specific timeline of events prior to these children's deaths.
  7. Aside from the five cases noted above, have there been any other cases of children who were detained at CBP facilities who then developed serious illnesses or health problems that required hospitalization?  If so, please provide a list of all such cases, including a specific timeline of events prior to these children's serious illnesses.