Press Release

IACHR Expresses Deep Concern over the Deaths of Two Migrant Children in the Custody of Immigration Authorities in the United States

January 7, 2019

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed its deep concern over the death of two Guatemalan migrant children who were in the custody of the Border Patrol in the United States. The IACHR urges the United States government to investigate the circumstances that led to these deaths and to take all measures necessary to guarantee that all migrants under its jurisdiction enjoy the rights to life, integrity, and health, particularly when these migrants are children or other vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

As is widely known, seven-year-old Guatemalan girl Jakelin Caal Maquin died on December 8. The girl and her father had been detained by US Border Patrol authorities as they were crossing the desert in New Mexico. The girl was initially received for processing at the Antelope Wells border patrol post. According to her father and the Guatemalan consular official who is following the case, the girl showed no symptoms of illness during her journey to the United States or at the time of her arrest. According to official reports, on the way from the Antelope Wells post to the Lordsburg post, her father told officers that she was feeling ill and was vomiting. After being taken by air ambulance to Providence Children’s Hospital in El Paso, she went into cardiac arrest at around 11 AM on December 7 and was resuscitated by the medical team. According to official sources, the girl was suffering from brain swelling and kidney failure when she died at 12:35 AM on December 8.

The IACHR has also received information on the death of eight-year-old Guatemalan boy Felipe Gómez Alonzo on December 24, the second case in which a migrant child has died in the custody of US Border Patrol authorities in less than three weeks. According to publicly available information, the boy was arrested on December 18 and was taken to the El Paso post on December 22. On Monday, December 24, the boy allegedly began to show symptoms of illness. He was taken to the Gerald Champion Hospital, where he was diagnosed with common flu. He remained in observation for less than two hours and was then discharged with a prescription for medication. That same afternoon, he was readmitted to the hospital and died just before midnight.

The IACHR wishes to stress that, in accordance with international human rights standards, the United States of America has an obligation to prevent human rights violations. The Commission also deems it necessary to point out that US authorities must consider the individual circumstances of migrants and asylum-seekers at and near its international borders, paying particular attention to vulnerable individuals, such as children and teenagers, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with disabilities, among others, who should be provided with special protection and personalized assistance that takes their rights and needs into account.

The IACHR is of the opinion that in border areas, it is the duty of state authorities to provide immediate assistance to migrants and asylum-seekers, and that this assistance must specifically include medical assistance, adequate food and water, clothing, blankets, personal hygiene supplies, and opportunity to rest. As part of operations to intercept migrants and control migration at international borders, it is the duty of state authorities to prioritize medical and health screenings for migrants and asylum-seekers. This implies that competent medical personnel must be present in places where migrants and asylum-seekers are intercepted or detained in order to examine them and refer them for further medical attention, including mental health referrals, when appropiate.

The IACHR acknowledges the following measures, which were announced by the US Border Patrol on December 26, in the aftermath of the two deaths described above: medical examinations for all children and teenagers who are currently being held by immigration authorities, provision of accommodation outside detention centers, and a general review of the protocols for caring for children and teenagers at the border. In relation to the latter, the IACHR urges the United States to consider the findings of two of its reports, "Human Mobility: Inter-American Standards" (2016) and "Refugees and migrants in the United States: families and unaccompanied children" (2015), the Advisory Opinion No. 21/14 of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on the rights and guarantees of children in the context of migration and/or in need of international protection, as well as in the "OHCHR’s Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights at International Borders" (2014).

The IACHR wishes to remind states that they cannot deprive children who are with their parents or those who are unaccompanied or have been separated from their parents of their freedom as a way of preventing them from migrating. Likewise, they cannot base such arrests on a failure to comply with the requirements to enter and remain in the country, on the fact that the child is alone or has been separated from their family, or to guarantee that the family is reunited. States can and must seek less harmful alternatives while also prioritizing the comprehensive protection of the rights of the child.

Commissioner Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño, rapporteur on the rights of the child, said: “The tragic deaths of Jakelin and Felipe are an urgent call to action to end the detention of children and adolescents for migratory reasons. The immigration detention of children is never in children’s best interests and runs counter to international legal standards. These two cases clearly demonstrate why we need to put an end to the immigration detention of children.” Commissioner Luis Ernesto Vargas Silva, rapporteur on the rights of migrants, stated: “The deaths of these two children once again highlight the risks that the use of immigration detention poses to children’s well-being. We need to be aware that many of the children who reach the US border are fleeing from violence, inequality, and discrimination in their countries and have also faced multiple other forms of violence and trauma during their journeys. This implies that states must necessarily adopt special measures to protect them and provide them with personalized assistance, which in practice translates into measures such as guaranteeing immediate medical assistance for children who are arrested at the border.”

Commissioner Margarette May Macaulay, rapporteur for the United States and president of the IACHR, added: “the state must carry out an impartial, independent investigation to clarify the circumstances in which these two young children died and to determine responsibility for their deaths. The state must also provide the parents and relatives of the two deceased children with the reparation that legal authorities deem appropriate. This case is about the life of two small children who were in the custody of US authorities. They cannot simply be written off as just another two deaths—the state must take the necessary steps to reform its protocols, practices, and any other measures needed to prevent these events from happening again.”

The IACHR urges the US government to conduct an independent investigation into the deaths of Jakelin Caal Maquin and Felipe Gómez Alonzo and to seek alternatives so as to end the detention of children and adolescents on the basis of their immigration status.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 001/19