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7-year-old Guatemalan girl dies after U.S. Border Patrol arrest

A seven-year-old girl who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with her father last week died after being taken into the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol, federal immigration authorities confirmed.

Jackeline Caal was with a group of 163 people who turned themselves in to U.S. agents

An official from Guatemala's foreign ministry identified the seven-year-old girl who died in U.S. Border Patrol custody as Jackeline Caal. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

U.S. immigration officials on Friday defended their actions in the detention of a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl who died two days after she and her father were taken into custody along a remote stretch of the U.S. border.

The girl, identified by a Guatemalan official as Jackeline Caal, had gone days without food and water, a Department of Homeland Security statement said. Yet immigration officials said she did not appear to be ill when detained on Dec. 6.

A Border Patrol form completed shortly after she was stopped said she was not sweating, had no tremors or visible trauma and was mentally alert. "Claims good health," the form reads. Jackeline's father appeared to have signed the form, which was obtained by The Associated Press.

But, hours later, after Jackeline was placed on a bus, she started vomiting. She was not breathing when she arrived at a border patrol station. Emergency medical technicians revived her and she was flown to a hospital in El Paso, where she was found to have swelling in her brain and liver failure, officials said. She later died.

An autopsy was scheduled to determine the cause of the girl's death. The results could take weeks.

Government watchdog to investigate

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced Friday its internal watchdog will investigate Caal's death.

The Office of the Inspector General, which looks into accusations of misconduct by public employees, will take the 
lead on the case. It said it would share the results of its investigation with the government, Congress and the public.

The girl's identity was provided to AP by an official with Guatemala's foreign ministry, who said her father was 29-year-old Nery Caal. The official requested anonymity because he was not authorized to share information.

Caal was driven to El Paso and was at the hospital when the girl died, officials said. He is not detained.

White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley called Jackeline's death "a horrific, tragic situation" and called for "common-sense laws to disincentivize people from coming up from the border," crossing illegally.

Guatemalan consular officials said they have spoken with the father, who was deeply upset.

'Family chose to cross illegally'

Processing 163 immigrants in one night could have posed challenges for the agency, whose detention facilities are meant to be temporary and don't usually fit that many people.

When a Border Patrol agent arrests someone, that person gets processed at a facility but usually spends no more than 72 hours in custody before being transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement or, if they're Mexican, quickly deported home.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said on Fox News that Jackeline's death was heart-wrenching and a sad example of the dangers of crossing the border. She said the girl's group was 145 kilometres from where it could be processed and a few trips were needed to get such a large group over to processing.

"This family chose to cross illegally," Nielsen said. "We'll continue to look into the situation, but, again, I cannot stress enough how dangerous this journey [is] when migrants choose to come here illegally."

The girl's death raises questions about whether border agents knew she was ill and whether she was fed anything or given anything to drink during the eight-plus hours she was in custody.

Democratic Congressman Jerry Nadler of New York said on Twitter that "we will be demanding immediate answers to this tragedy" when Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen appears next week before the House's judiciary committee.

'A culture of cruelty': ACLU

Immigrants, lawyers and activists have long raised issues with the conditions of Border Patrol holding cells. In Tucson, an ongoing lawsuit claims holding cells are filthy, extremely cold and lacking basic necessities such as blankets. A judge overseeing that lawsuit has ordered the agency's Tucson Sector, which patrols much of the Arizona-Mexico border, to provide blankets and mats to sleep on and continually turn over surveillance footage from inside the cells.

The Border Patrol has seen an increasing trend of large groups of immigrants, many with young children, walking up to agents and turning themselves in. Most are Central American and say they are fleeing violence. They turn themselves in instead of trying to circumvent authorities, many with plans to apply for asylum.

Agents in Arizona see groups of over 100 people on a regular basis, sometimes including infants and toddlers.

Arresting such groups poses logistical problems for agents who have to wait on transport vans equipped with baby seats to take them to processing facilities, some of which are at least half an hour north of the border.

The death of the seven-year-old comes after a toddler died in May just after being released from an ICE family detention facility in Texas, and as the administration of Donald Trump attempts to ban people from asking for asylum if they crossed the border illegally. A federal appeals court has temporarily blocked that ban, but the administration asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate it Tuesday.

Cynthia Pompa, advocacy manager for the ACLU Border Rights Center, said migrant deaths increased last year even as the number of border crossings dropped.

"This tragedy represents the worst possible outcome when people, including children, are held in inhumane conditions. Lack of accountability, and a culture of cruelty within CBP have exacerbated policies that led to migrant deaths," Pompa said.

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