McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The lawyer for the family of an 8-year-old girl who died last month in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody in South Texas told Border Report on Monday that the agency should not be “jailing” young children, and alleges it has “systematic problems.”
Karla Vargas, a senior attorney with the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project, says her organization is representing the family of Anadith Tanay Reyes Álvarez, who died May 17 in CBP custody in Harlingen, Texas.
She said her organization is prepared to file a lawsuit on the family’s behalf if they want.
They also have asked for an autopsy into her death, but Vargas said Monday that so far that has not been granted.
Vargas says that contrary to a statement made by CBP last week, the girl’s mother “repeatedly” told CBP officers that Anadith had pre-existing health conditions — including a heart condition and sickle cell anemia — and she needed to be taken to a hospital.
“It’s very unfortunate. The mother was advocating for her daughter to receive medical care. She stated that she asked not only medical personnel but also the agents,” Vargas told Border Report.
“From the moment that the family was apprehended, the mother was very vocal, very open about the fact that her daughter had a condition. And while the investigation is important, obviously, to name the individuals involved, and to identify the problems that came up that led to this child’s death, it’s equally important for us to really look at the bigger picture and identify the fact that there are systemic problems at play here,” said Vargas, who is based in Brownsville, Texas.
Anadith was born in Panama. She and her mother, father and two siblings, who are all Honduran, crossed the border illegally from Matamoros, Mexico, into Brownsville, on May 9, CBP officials said.
They were part of a wave of asylum-seekers who came by the hundreds every day and gave themselves up to Border Patrol at an abandoned golf course near a university just blocks from the Rio Grande in the days leading up to the lifting of Title 42.
Title 42 was the public health order put in place in March 2020 that restricted migrants from claiming asylum at the U.S. border in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19. When it ended on May 11, it was replaced by Title 8, which mandates that migrants must have a scheduled asylum interview with CBP officials and cannot cross the Rio Grande illegally.
Anadith’s family was among those who crossed just before the switch in policies and were sent to an initial processing facility for five days in the nearby border town of Donna, Texas. But after Anadith developed flu-like symptoms and tested positive for influenza, she and her family were sent on May 14 to the Harlingen facility where Anadith was in a medical isolation ward.
Altogether, she was in custody for nine days — over 200 hours — before she died.
Vargas says such long detentions violate the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement, which ruled that immigrant children should not be detained longer than 72 hours in custody. But she acknowledged that the federal government has “wide discretion” in how long they can hold asylum-seekers, and are allowed exceptions to this rule.
“Why was this child detained for way much, much longer than the 72 hours prescribed by law?” Vargas said. “The problem is that the law itself, the protections itself, allow a lot of discretion, a lot of exceptions. And that is a problem that needs to change.”
According to a statement from CBP released Thursday, Anadith arrived at the Harlingen facility on May 14 and the closed-circuit television recording system at the processing station was not working. But based on interviews with Border Patrol agents and contract medical personnel who interacted with the family, the agency said the mother brought the girl for medical care nine times in three days. The last time she carried in the girl who appeared to be having a seizure, four hours after the previous visit. She then became unresponsive and was rushed by ambulance to a hospital where she died within the hour.
CBP said “contracted medical personnel failed to document numerous medical encounters, emergency antipyretic interventions, and administrations of medicine.” The agency says the nurse practitioner refused to review the medical records or send the girl for higher-level care.
But the agency says no CBP officers were aware of the girl’s previous medical conditions.
CBP Acting Commissioner Troy Miller calls this an “unacceptable tragedy” and has ordered several reviews on CBP facilities nationwide to ensure contract medical personnel are following specified guidelines; and to ensure all TV recording cameras are working.
The TV system in Harlingen was repaired and running by May 23.
But Vargas says that isn’t enough, and that there needs to be more transparency, oversight and scrutiny into how CBP enters into contracts with medical providers at migrant processing facilities.
“This is sadly not the first time it happened. There have been investigations in the past when children have passed away. And sadly, we have not seen the changes needed to be implemented to prevent another death. And this is why we find ourselves here again today sadly, discussing the death of yet another child in CBP custody,” she said.
She advocates for “policy revisions to really limit when children are detained,” because she says the agency is “jailing children” with little accountability.
“Our position, based on what we see here on the ground in the border every day, is that these children should not be jailed. Right now, for the most part, immigration processing requires that these children be jailed at some point during their processing. And that, unfortunately, is the standard and it shouldn’t be. And I don’t know if people understand the extent to which jailing children continues to be a practice and part and parcel of immigration, policy and processing and that really should change,” she said.