A Christmas Eve Tragedy

An 8-year-old Guatemalan child dies in U.S. custody on Christmas Eve after being treated for a cold
The Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center in Alamogordo, N.M., where U.S. Customs and Border Protection said an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy died late Christmas Eve while in custody of immigration authorities. (Paul Ratje / AFP/Getty Images)

An 8-year-old Guatemalan boy died late Christmas Eve in the custody of U.S. immigration authorities, the second death in less than three weeks of a child in detention and a searing new emblem of Trump administration border policies that critics are lambasting as cruel and inhumane.

The boy’s death at a New Mexico hospital marked yet another grim inflection point in the wider immigration struggle that has roiled U.S. politics this year, stirring partisan passions and fueling outrage over the ongoing separation of hundreds of children from their parents at the border.

Monday’s death, announced by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, comes against the backdrop of a separate migration-related battle: the partial government shutdown over President Trump’s demand of $5 billion for a border wall. There is no indication that the shutdown had anything to do with the child’s death, however. Customs and Border Protection agents are considered essential employees and remain on the job.

The 8-year-old, who had been detained earlier, along with his father, died shortly before midnight Monday, CBP said in a statement. After the boy showed “signs of potential illness” Monday, he was taken with his father to Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center in Alamogordo but released after being given medication for a cold and fever, the agency said.

Returned to the hospital Monday evening with nausea and vomiting, the boy died hours later, according to CBP, which pledged an “independent and thorough review” of the circumstances. No cause of death has yet been officially determined.

But immigration advocates said the boy’s death was only the latest indication of a larger humanitarian crisis triggered by the Trump administration’s harsh policies.

“This is a horrific tragedy,” the ACLU tweeted. “CBP must be held accountable and stopped from jailing children.” It called for the next Congress to investigate the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP. Democrats will hold a majority in the House of Representatives from Jan. 3.

Amnesty International also called for an investigation of the deaths, in a statement that decried “policies of cruelty toward migrants and asylum-seekers at the border.”

The latest case appeared outwardly similar to that of 7-year-old Jakelin Caal, who died Dec. 7 after being taken into the custody of the Border Patrol. Her body was returned to her native Guatemala for burial on Sunday.

The nationwide outcry sparked by the girl’s case seemed to have struck a nerve with the Trump administration, which denies any responsibility for her death. The girl’s death came to light only after a report in the Washington Post.

In addition to the disclosure of the boy’s death and the CBP’s promise of a review, it also said the Guatemalan government had been notified, together with “appropriate Congressional notifications.”

However, the statement also emphasized the administration’s principal talking point in the Caal case, the “dramatic increase in unaccompanied children and family units arriving at our borders illegally or without authorization.” Jakelin crossed the border with her father and 161 other Central American migrants outside of Antelope Wells, N.M., seeking to turn themselves in to immigration authorities.

Tuesday’s statement also stressed that detainees “receive medical screening and treatment as needed.” Attorneys for the Caal family earlier this month disputed reports that the girl went several days without food and water before crossing the border, as the Department of Homeland Security suggested.

The Trump administration will likely face aggressive scrutiny over the latest death. Rep. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), a member of the Homeland Security Committee, directed a tweet at DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, decrying the death of “the second child in a month.”

At the White House, Trump dug in on wall funding, asserting without citing particulars that “many” federal workers support the shutdown.

“These federal workers want the wall,” he said in remarks to reporters on Christmas. About 800,000 federal workers have been affected by the partial shutdown, some furloughed without pay and some expected to receive deferred pay.

Trump also said he intended to continue the shutdown until he is assured of the desired funding.

Tuesday marked the fourth day of the shutdown of about a quarter of the government. Thus far, the weekend and the following Christmas holiday have softened some of the brunt, but the partial shutdown’s effect is expected to be felt more strongly in coming days.

About 25% of the government is shut down, and the impasse showed no real signs of moving toward a resolution.

“I can’t tell you when the government is going to reopen,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “I can tell you it’s not going to be open until we have a wall, a fence, whatever they’d like to call it. … It’s a barrier from people pouring into our country.”

Calling California “difficult to deal with because of the governor,” Trump cited San Diego as a bastion of support for the wall.

“People were walking through Mexico right into San Diego, right over people’s front lawns by the hundreds, by the thousands,” he said, without providing evidence. “And they came to us; they asked for a wall.”