Things That Matter

A 16-Year-Old Guatemalan Boy Died In Border Patrol Custody And Thanks To An Autopsy We Now Have More Details On Why

In March, a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy died while at a South Texas Border Patrol station, and an autopsy report released on Wednesday is offering jarring new details around his passing.

The 16-year-old died in US custody but new details paint a troubling picture of his death.

Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez crossed the US-Mexico border near Weslaco, Texas by himself on May 13. The teen was taken to a processing center for unaccompanied minors in McAllen for six days. On May 19, after a nurse practitioner found that he had a 103-degree fever and tested positive for the flu, he was given Tamiflu and transferred to the Border Patrol station at Weslaco. The next morning, Hernandez Vasquez was dead.

His loss marked the fifth death of a migrant child in Border Patrol custody since December, prompting many questions from immigrant rights activists and community members. Now an autopsy report obtained by Texas Monthly is offering some answers. 

According to the account, the teen died of a flu that was complicated by pneumonia and sepsis. Dr. Norma Jean Farley, a contract forensic pathologist for Hidalgo County who conducted the autopsy, said a video captures the unpleasant final moments of his life. Hernandez Vasquez was fed at 2 a.m. on May 20, with agents checking in on him once an hour. Some time later (a concrete hour isn’t known because the timestamp on the video is incorrect, with no details in the report explaining the inaccuracy), the teen is seen lying on the floor, vomiting on the floor, and walks over to the commode, where he sits and later lies back and expires.”

Hernandez Vasquez’s body was found at 6 a.m. that morning. He was declared dead 12 minutes later.

Credit: @splcenter / Twitter

After news of his passing went viral, the agency’s acting commissioner, John Sanders, made a written statement. 

“The men and women of U.S. Customs and Border Protection are saddened by the tragic loss of this young man and our condolences are with his family,” he said, as reported by the Dallas News. “CBP is committed to the health, safety and humane treatment of those in our custody.”

However, in Hernandez Vasquez’s case, and that of several other detained ill children, Border Patrol did not follow protocol. The agency is required to transfer unaccompanied children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours, but they did not. Even more, despite his poor health, he was not taken to a hospital.

After mounting criticism, the teen’s death was put under review to determine why proper procedures were not followed.

Credit: @ErikaAndiola / Twitter

According to Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and MassGeneral Hospital for Children, it is “fairly rare” for children living in the United States to die from the flu. He told the Texas Monthly that about one out of 600,000 US children die of the sickness. However, out of 230,000 young people being held in Customs and Border Protection, three have died of the flu.

Dr. Judy Melinek, a veteran forensic pathologist who reviewed Hernandez’s autopsy, as well as the three other autopsies available for migrant children who died in custody, said the conditions in which detained children are kept leads to high health risk.

“Prolonged custody of mixed groups of migrants from different regions in close quarters increases the likelihood of transmission of respiratory pathogens such as influenza,” Melinek, a board-certified forensic pathologist in San Francisco and CEO of PathologyExpert Inc., told the paper.

As a result, she is calling for a “public health audit of the policies and conditions in these migrant camps and a forensic review of all migrant deaths.”

Up until December, a child hadn’t died in Border Patrol custody in a decade.

Credit: @UNITEDWEDREAM / Twitter

Curiously, each of the five unaccompanied minors who did pass on had initially been taken into custody by agents from the El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley sectors of the Border Patrol. 

Seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin died in an El Paso hospital on Dec. 8. The late child, who had journeyed to the United States with her father, perished from a bacterial infection that spread to her bloodstream and caused multiple organ failure. Weeks later, on Christmas Eve, Felipe Gomez Alonzo, 8, died of influenza B and bacterial infection. This year, 16-year-old Juan DeLeon Gutierrez died at a Corpus Christi hospital on April 30 after getting sick at an Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter in Brownsville, Texas. A month later, on May 14, 2-year-old Josue Ramirez Vasquez died of “multiple intestinal and respiratory infectious diseases,” including influenza A.

On Wednesday, the House passed a bill that would institute basic standards of care for those in Border Patrol custody. H.R. 3239, which passed 233 to 195, aims to prevent the now-growing deaths of detained children by establishing standards of care that meet people’s humanitarian needs. 

Credit: @RepFletcher / Twitter

The measure proposes ensuring that everyone in Border Patrol custody has access to drinking water; private, clean and reliable toilets that include a proper waste disposal and a hand washing station; basic personal hygiene products; and receive the medically appropriate number of calories for age and weight to height ratio. It also requires facilities to maintain shelter and environmental standards, like minimum space requirements, specified temperature ranges and appropriate bedding, as well as provide adequate training to officers responsible for implementing the new stipulations.

“Today’s vote brings us closer than ever to preventing the deaths of children and restoring humanity to our treatment of children and families seeking asylum,” Rep. Raul Ruiz’s (D-CA) said.

Read: The New York Times Asked People To Share Stories Of Being Told To “Go Back” Where They Came From And My Heart Aches

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