After Deaths of Immigrant Children, Border Officials Defend Detention System

By Travis Bubenik, Courthouse News

Facing criticism over multiple cases of immigrant children dying while in government custody, U.S. border officials on Tuesday defended their agencies’ approach to caring for families and children who arrive at the southern border.

“We take seriously our responsibility to protect and care for individuals until they can be transferred,” Brian Hastings, chief of law enforcement operations for the U.S. Border Patrol, told House lawmakers during a Homeland Security subcommittee hearing.

Staff escort immigrants to class at the U.S. government’s holding center for children in Carrizo Springs, Texas, on July 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Immigrant advocates and House Democrats have expressed outrage over the deaths of at least six immigrant children since 2018 who were in the care of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, saying the deaths raise serious concerns about conditions in border detention facilities and the agency’s ability to handle the medical needs of such vulnerable people.

The two officials who testified at Tuesday’s hearing countered that border officers did the best they could to deal with an overwhelming increase in Central American families arriving at the border in 2019, and that the government has since updated its approach to providing medical care to detained immigrants.

Hastings testified that he “could not be more proud of the extraordinary efforts undertaken by the men and women of the CBP” in responding to last year’s surge in immigrants arriving at the border.

Alex Eastman, the senior medical officer for operations within the Department of Homeland Security, testified that the department had launched a “herculean effort” to provide health care at border facilities in response to the influx of families. The government’s roster of contracted medical providers who work at the border has since grown to more than 700, he said.

“We have a legal, moral and ethical duty to care for those in our custody,” Eastman said. “The challenge was unprecedented, required an unconventional solution, and we responded.”

Still, CBP has come under heightened criticism after a high-profile case in December, when a ProPublica investigation found the agency had mischaracterized the circumstances surrounding the death of Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, a 16-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who died in a South Texas Border Patrol cell after being diagnosed with the flu.

Video obtained by the news outlet showed the visibly sick boy collapsing onto the floor of the cell, where he apparently remained until dying hours later.

The video prompted the House Oversight Committee to launch an investigation into what the committee’s chair, Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., described as an apparent “troubling pattern of abuse and poor treatment of immigrants in the department’s detention centers.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Representative Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., pressed Hastings about the death of Hernandez Vasquez, asking what could have been done differently to prevent what the government has acknowledged was a “tragic loss.”

“The video itself was troubling,” Hastings said, though he provided few new details about the case.

Noting that DHS’s Office of Inspector General is still investigating the death, Hastings suggested the investigation could shed more light on what happened during the boy’s final hours.

“I know that all of the video has been turned over, all the items that we had,” Hastings said, adding that he had not seen the full video himself. “They have all the video, not just a piece, as I understand, that was pulled from the sheriff’s department.”

Hastings demurred when asked about any lessons learned from Hernandez Vasquez’s death, but said border facilities had previously been instructed to perform and document wellness checks on immigrants every 15 minutes.

The inspector general’s office did not respond to a request for an update on its investigation into the 16-year-old’s death, but it recently found there was “no misconduct or malfeasance” by DHS personnel in the deaths of two other immigrant children.

Immigrant advocates continue to push for more transparency from the government over the deaths of immigrant children.

Representative Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, has slammed the Trump administration over the issue, saying on Twitter that “local jails are more transparent than our well-funded government facilities and agencies.”

Shaw Drake, an advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said in an interview ahead of Tuesday’s hearing that CBP has yet to take any steps toward “true accountability.”

“I think the agency is quick to point to measures it has taken, perhaps new screening measures or additional access to medical professionals,” he said. “But we have not seen the type of overarching reforms or changes in procedure that the agency needs to protect against these types of abuses in the future and hold those responsible accountable.”

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