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Migrant girl's death in custody highlights chaos of U.S. border strategy

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

A woman carries her son in San Diego, close to the border wall between the United States and Mexico. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.


  • The death of a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl trying to get into the U.S. is the latest tragedy to emerge from Trump's immigration crackdown
  • In Tijuana, Mexico, the huge gathering of migrants trying to find a new home in the U.S. is coping with the backup at the border by adding their names to La Lista
  • The man behind the mask: Trying to get a glimpse of mysterious Instagram poet Atticus
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here

Death and chaos on the U.S. border

The death of a seven-year-old girl who had been taken into custody by the U.S. Border Patrol along the Mexican frontier last week highlights the continuing chaos and confusion surrounding the Trump administration's crackdown on migrants.

The as-yet unidentified girl from Guatemala crossed into the U.S. with her father and 161 other people on the evening of Dec. 6. They all surrendered to authorities near Lordsburg, N.M., claiming asylum. It took Border Patrol agents several hours to transport and process the large group.

It's still not clear what happened to the girl during that period, but the Washington Post reports that she began to have seizures at around 6:30 a.m., and was found to be running a fever of 40.94 C. She later went into cardiac arrest during a medical evacuation flight to a hospital in El Paso, was revived, but died later in the day from the effects of dehydration and exhaustion.

The Border Patrol says the girl "reportedly had not eaten or consumed water for several days." Migrants are usually provided with food and drink after they are taken into custody, but no one has said whether that protocol was followed last week.

On the same day the girl died, U.S. Homeland Security released figures showing that the number of people arrested or turned back along the Mexican border hit a Trump-era high of 62,456 in November. And among the detained were 25,172 "members of family units" — an all-time record — and another 5,283 "unaccompanied minors."

A Honduran migrant holds her daughter as she stands with a group of other migrants in front of a line of Mexican police in riot gear. (Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press)

The increased influx and the White House's demands for stricter vetting and longer detentions are pushing an already stressed system to its breaking point.

Border stations, many built decades ago to lock up single men, have few facilities for women and children. And the newer shelters are already bursting at the seams.

As of today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for migrant children, reports that it has 14,700 unaccompanied minors in custody, and that its junior jails are 92 per cent full. About half of the kids come from Guatemala, 28 per cent are from Honduras and 12 per cent are from El Salvador.

The amount of time that such children are spending in immigration detention is steadily increasing, with it usually taking 60 to 100 days to place a kid with a sponsor.

Some of that has to do with the numbers now flooding across the border, or the Trump administration's new policy that requires fingerprinting of every person in the prospective foster home.

But there is also an element of fear, since that information is now shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a.k.a. ICE.

According to statistics released earlier this week, U.S. authorities arrested 170 people who tried to claim or sponsor migrant children between early July and late November — 61 on criminal charges and 109 on immigration violations. And ICE reports that 80 per cent of the potential sponsors it is screening are in the country unlawfully.

Advocacy groups say the background checks are now the main reason why so many migrant children remain locked up. "Your agencies have taken a process designed to protect children and made it into a tool that uses them to find and deport their families," 112 organizations wrote in an open letter to the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services late last month.

In an attempt to stem the flow of migrants this past spring, the White House ordered border authorities to start forcibly separating parents and children if they were caught trying to illegally enter the U.S. The policy sparked outrage and its cruelty was condemned both at home and abroad, and President Trump eventually put an end to it in late June.

But the chaos it created continues.

An October report by a Homeland Security watchdog found that border agents were unprepared for and overwhelmed by the separation order and no system in place to track the children.

Merary Alejandra feeds her three-year-old sister Britany Sofia, outside a migrant shelter in Tijuana, Mexico. (Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press)

But the policy — and what it would mean for parents — caught some federal agencies off guard. There was no system in place to track parents along with their children, and that in many cases the data that was collected was erased by the various agencies' "incompatible" computer systems.

As of mid-November, 140 of the 2,400 children who were separated from their parents remained in government custody, and the reunification bill had swelled to more than $80 million U.S.

And some children continue to be separated from their families — 81 since the practice officially ended in late June — under exceptions for medical concerns, or in cases where parents are facing "serious" criminal charges.

Another watchdog, the Health and Human Services Inspector General, recently issued a report on a temporary holding facility in Texas that now houses as many as 1,800 kids, finding that its private owners had failed to conduct the required background checks on staff, and have hired a "dangerously low" number of health professionals to treat and monitor the detainees.

The tragic death of the seven-year-old girl is already bringing calls for more scrutiny.

"There are no words to capture the horror of a seven-year-old girl dying of dehydration in U.S. custody. What's happening at our borders is a humanitarian crisis," Hillary Clinton wrote on Twitter this morning.

So far, the Trump administration is blaming the victim and her father.

In an interview with Fox News this morning, Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of Homeland Security, said the death was a "very sad example of the dangers of this journey."

She repeated Trump's calls for $5 billion U.S. in funding from Congress to start building a border wall.

Getting a read on Tijuana's La Lista

The CBC Los Angeles bureau's Kim Brunhuber visited Tijuana, Mexico, to see how migrants trying to find a new home in the U.S. are coping with the backup at the border.

The story of The List – or La Lista, as it's known to thousands of Central American migrants – fascinated me because it encapsulates so much of the migrants' experience in Tijuana: hope, despair, the cavernous cracks in the system and the willingness of the desperate to create order out of chaos.

I'd heard all about The List when I was in Tijuana last year covering the influx of Haitians who were seeking asylum in the U.S.

Migrants at the U.S. border crossing gather each morning as the names at the top of La Lista are read off, indicating whose turn it is for one of the limited number of daily asylum-claim interviews with U.S. border officials. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Due to the sheer number of Haitians who had made their way to Tijuana from Brazil and Central America, the Obama administration instituted a policy known as "metering," which limits the number of people who could apply for asylum on any day. So migrants came up with a system to determine who would be allowed to make their claim each day, and it's still being used.

Every morning a group of volunteers sets up a plastic table and a tent at Plaza Viva Tijuana, right next to the pedestrian crossing to the United States. And every morning, newly arrived migrants write their names in a ledger.

Then, an hour or so later, the volunteers read out a bunch of names. They go down the list in order and those called are allowed to proceed up the nearby ramp at the El Chaparral border crossing to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for their initial asylum claim interview.

The men and women behind the table taking down names told me Mexican immigration authorities are ostensibly in charge of the ledger, but in practice it was conceived of and run by volunteers — migrants who are themselves on The List. Even though it is basically regulating the only way to get into the U.S. legally to make an asylum claim at the border crossing, the U.S. government has nothing to do with La Lista itself.

Since the arrival of the migrant caravans from Central America, the number of names on that list has skyrocketed to more than 5,000.

The Trump administration has throttled the metering process; now, only between 30 and 100 names are called per day. One Honduran migrant — the last person on the list the day I was there — did the math and told me he was in for a wait of two months or more.

The List, known locally in Tijuana as La Lista, is a ledger of names that indicates the place of each migrant in the daily lineup at the El Chaparral border crossing to approach U.S. Customs and Border Protection for an initial asylum claim interview. It can take weeks to go from the end of the list to the front of the line. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Due to the lack of official oversight, there have been problems — among them, accusations of bribes being offered to the list's administrators for a preferred place. In fact, the morning I was there, during the reading out of names I did see a furtive exchange of cash, but I was unable to ascertain what exactly it was for.

And because of the length of La Lista, many migrants are simply giving up. Some are heading to the Mexican immigration office, which is arranging free buses for those who want to return home.

Many more are asking for asylum — not in the U.S., but in Mexico — which would allow them to stay for a year and work.

"I would earn a lot less in Mexico than I would in the U.S.," one migrant told me, "but I will still make more in Mexico than I would back home [in Honduras]."

In other words, many migrants may have to settle for the Mexican dream, instead of the more lucrative American model.

Kim Brunhuber

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The Phantom of Instagram

Tashauna Reid's story tonight for The National is about the resurgence of poetry, thanks largely to the growing popularity of "Insta-poets," from Rupi Kaur to Lang Leav. These young writers built their audience using Instagram. They've now drifted into the world of celebrity, gracing the front rows of fashion shows and getting celebrity endorsements. 

One of the big names in the world of poetry is a young B.C. poet named Atticus, who got his start through Instagram, typing out his short poems about love and posting them alongside black and white photos.

He's attracted nearly one million followers, including the likes of the Kardashians and Hollywood actors. He's become so popular that young people share posts of his tattooed verses on their bodies using #Atticus as a hashtag.

Instagram poet Atticus poses with a copy of his book The Dark Between Stars at Munro's Books in Victoria, B.C. (David Malysheff/CBC)

But here's the thing: Atticus has kept his identity hidden the whole time. He's never shared images of his face, only the carefully branded and curated Instagram posts of his poetry. And at his public poetry readings he wears a metallic silver Guy Fawkes mask. He says he made the choice to keep his identity a secret so the audience and fans will focus on his words. He says it's also a reminder for himself to "write what I feel and to be vulnerable and to not make it about the celebrity recognition."

But there's no denying his mysterious image is a huge part of his brand.

My producer Alice Hopton got in contact with his publisher Simon & Schuster, and after some back and forth, managed to lock in an interview with the elusive poet. He was in California, but would be in Victoria for a few days. They suggested a local coffee shop and bookstore that Atticus had done readings at before. Since I'm based in Toronto, we booked a freelance camera to do the shoot.

Our interview was scheduled for 11 a.m. local time in Victoria. As the time approached, we get an email saying that the airline he flew with lost his luggage, and they needed to push the interview back by an hour. Then shortly before our new interview time, another delay. The airport had located his luggage and he was on his way to retrieve​ it​. Then he'd come to us.

​We wondered why he couldn't make a stop at the airport after the interview. Turns out, he had special cargo packed in that suitcase – his mask.

We notified our camera person of the delay and dilemma. A small hiccup on our end, but of course these things happen.

Two hours later, Atticus made it to the bookstore.  

I called my camera person's phone through FaceTime so I could see this masked poet with my own eyes. And there he was, in all his shining glory with blue eyes piercing through his Guy Fawkes mask.

In my 10 years at the CBC, this was my first interview with a masked artist.

  • WATCH: Tashauna Reid's story about Insta-poets tonight on The National on CBC Television and streamed online

A few words on ... 

A happy ending to a reckless act.

Quote of the moment

"Here is the truth: People of the United States of America, people of the world, don't believe what he is saying. The man doesn't tell the truth. And it is sad that I should take responsibility for his dirty deeds."

Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's former lawyer, tells ABC News that the president was fully aware of and involved in the hush money payoffs to porn star Stormy Daniels and an ex-Playboy model.

What The National is reading

  • French police prepare for fifth wave of yellow vest protests (Reuters)
  • U.S.-backed fighters take last ISIS stronghold in Syria (CBC)
  • Spanish prosecutor accuses Shakira of 14.5 million Euro tax fraud (El Pais)
  • Human heart for donation left behind on Southwest flight (CNN)
  • Portraits of Canada's ice fishing huts (Smithsonian Magazine)
  • Lost at sea with the Property Brothers and their legion of superfans (The Ringer)
  • Meet the godfathers of the Christmas carol (BBC)
  • 231 British pubs become Wham!-free safe spaces for Christmas (The Takeout)

Today in history

Dec. 14, 1989: 714-X: Miracle cancer cure or bunk?

Spoiler: bunk.

Alternative cancer therapy, or bunk?

32 years ago
Quebec's highly controversial Gaston Naessens is either a cancer saviour or a fraud. 6:25

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Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.