Following deaths, health exams instituted for all migrant children at U.S.-Mexico border
2 Guatemalan children have died in U.S. immigration custody this month
More thorough initial health screenings, as well as secondary screenings, will be held for every migrant child in U.S. Border Patrol custody following the deaths of two Guatemalan children this month, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
"The system is clearly overwhelmed and we must work together to address this humanitarian crisis and protect vulnerable populations," Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement Saturday. She called on Congress to "act with urgency."
Nielsen's announcement came a day after she met border officials and medical staff in El Paso, Texas. About 143 kilometres north, in the city of Alamogordo, 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo died in U.S. government custody on Christmas Eve. He was the second Guatemalan child to die in government custody in three weeks. A seven-year-old girl died in El Paso earlier this month.
Nielsen had previously called the death "deeply concerning and heartbreaking," and requested medical help from other government agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, two Democratic senators from border state New Mexico, sent her a letter Friday seeking answers about the boy's death.
"The timeline, action and factors that led to Felipe's death are still developing, but the information that has become public so far is alarming and demands immediate attention and investigation," Udall and Heinrich wrote in the letter.
U.S. President Donald Trump blamed Democrats for migrant deaths at the border Saturday. He tweeted the deaths are the fault of "their pathetic immigration policies that allow people to make the long trek thinking they can enter our country illegally." Trump also alleged both children "were very sick before they were given over to Border Patrol."
U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat whose district includes much of the U.S.-Mexico-border, on Saturday issued a statement saying Nielsen was visiting Yuma "under the dark cloud of a Republican-induced government shutdown, the president's threats to close the border and the tragic deaths of two children in DHS custody."
Felipe and his father, Agustin Gomez, were apprehended by border agents on Dec. 18 near the Paso del Norte bridge connecting El Paso to Juarez, Mexico, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The two were detained at the bridge's processing centre and then the Border Patrol station in El Paso, until being taken at about 1 a.m. Sunday to a facility in Alamogordo, New Mexico, about 145 kilometres away.
After an agent noticed Felipe coughing, the boy and his father were taken to an Alamogordo hospital, where Felipe was diagnosed with a common cold and found to have a fever of 103 F, officials said.
Felipe was held for observation for 90 minutes, according to authorities, before being released with prescriptions for amoxicillin and ibuprofen.
But the boy fell sick hours later on Monday and was re-admitted to the hospital. He died just before midnight.
New Mexico authorities said late Thursday that an autopsy showed Felipe had the flu, but more tests need to be done before a cause of death can be determined.