Nielsen says all children in Border Patrol custody have received medical screenings
Posted December 26, 2018 5:56 p.m. EST
(CNN) — All children in US Border Patrol custody have received medical screenings and apprehended children will now be assessed more thoroughly, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced Wednesday in a statement on the death of an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy in Border Patrol custody.
"This tragedy, the death of a child in government custody is deeply concerning and heartbreaking," Nielsen wrote in the statement. "In the last 24 hours, I have ... directed a series of additional actions to care for those who enter our custody."
The Guatemalan boy died late on Christmas Eve in the custody of US Customs and Border Protection, according to the agency. Earlier this month, a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl died hours after she had been taken into Border Patrol custody, the Department of Homeland Security said.
"Moving forward, all children will receive a more thorough hands on assessment at the earliest possible time post apprehension -- whether or not the accompanying adult has asked for one," Nielsen writes in the statement.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi announced Wednesday that Congress will investigate border deaths of children and said Democrats want the Homeland Security Department's inspector general to investigate the death of the 8-year-old boy.
"Democrats call on Homeland Security's Inspector General to immediately open an investigation" into the death of Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, the California Democrat said in a statement. "The Congress will also investigate this tragedy and the heartbreaking death of Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin, to seek justice and ensure that no other child is left to such a fate."
Earlier Wednesday, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told CBS News that the inspector general is already investigating.
"With any death in custody we report immediately to our office of professional responsibility and the DHS inspector general," McAleenan said. "Both of those independent investigative arms have responded and already interviewed the father, and they'll be pursuing an investigation into the circumstances around this tragic event."
Nielsen reiterated on the record what a Homeland Security Department official had told reporters on background earlier Wednesday -- that six migrants, none of whom were children, died in the custody of Customs and Border Protection during fiscal year 2018. She noted it had been more than 10 years since a child has died in the agency's custody.
"I have personally engaged with the Centers for Disease Control to request that their experts investigate the uptick in sick children crossing our borders and identify additional steps hospitals along the border should be undertaking to prepare for and to treat these children," Nielsen wrote in the statement.
The statement said Nielsen has asked the Department of Defense to provide medical professionals in addition to the "1500 "medically trained agents and officers on duty across the border."
It also said the Coast Guard will look at Customs and Border Protection's medical program to see if it can recommend any improvements.
Nielsen's statement focused on the large numbers of families coming across the border illegally, noting the trend has become "starker" in December. She cited increased numbers of people who are ill, saying, "It is now clear that migrants, particularly children, are increasingly facing medical challenges and harboring illness caused by their long and dangerous journey."
Nielsen wrote that she has asked Mexico to look into the causes of illnesses on its side of the border and to assist those in shelters "as needed."
On the issue of releasing migrant families into the US, Nielsen says they cannot be held longer than 21 days and are "almost always released" into the US. Further, she reiterates the border stations were never intended as "longer-term" holding facilities. While she did not provide details, Nielsen also said in the statement that she will travel to the border "later this week to see first-hand the medical screenings and conditions at Border Patrol stations."