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Can We Be Sure Only Six Migrant Children Have Recently Died in Government Custody?

We now know of six children who died after spending time in government custody in the last eight months. Advocates and politicians have raised the alarm that there could be more.
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Migrants walk toward the El Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico, on June 21st, 2018.

Migrants walk toward the El Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico, on June 21st, 2018.

Six migrant children have died in government custody, or soon after being released, since September of 2018. That's according to reports released by the Trump administration, including news of a previously unreported death that surfaced on Wednesday. Now, advocates and politicians have raised the alarm that there could be more deaths the public does not know about.

This week began with the announcement that another minor had died in government custody: Carlos Hernandez Vásquez, a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy, was found dead in a Customs and Border Patrol detention facility in Texas. Most newspapers reported that Hernandez Vásquez was the fifth migrant child to die after spending time in government detention.

But had there only been five deaths? On Wednesday, CBS News first reported that a 10-year-old Salvadoran girl, whose identity has not yet been released, died while in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the government agency in charge of handling unaccompanied migrant children. This revelation meant that, in the last eight months, six children died after spending time in government custody.

The head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Representative Joaquin Castro (D–Texas), accused the Trump administration of trying to conceal the incident. "They covered up her death for eight months, even though we were actively asking the question about whether any child had died or been seriously injured," Castro said in an interview with CBS.

Why did it take the ORR so long to acknowledge the Salvadoran girl's death? Here's what we know—and what we don't know—about how the government responds when a migrant child dies in its care.

Understanding Which Agencies Have Migrant Children in Their Custody

Three government agencies have migrant children in their custody: CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and ORR.

When a child arrives on the U.S. border (and either asks for asylum at an official point of entry or is apprehended crossing the border), that child is first placed in short-term CBP detention. These detention facilities are rudimentary, and often designed for single men. Since December, four children have died after falling ill in CBP custody (one of those children was taken to a hospital and formally "released" before he died).

Federal law requires all people to be transferred out of CBP detention within 72 hours—although many people, like the teenager who died on Monday, spend much longer in CBP custody. Where a child goes after being transferred out of CBP custody depends on who the child is traveling with. Accompanied minors are placed in the custody of ORR, which either places them in a government-run shelter or with a stateside sponsor. Two children have died in ORR custody since last fall: the 10-year-girl who died in September, and Juan de León Gutiérrez, a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy who died of a brain infection in April.

If a child is in CPB custody with a parent or guardian, they will either be released with a court date or transferred to ICE detention. Since Trump took office, no child has died in ICE custody (though an 18-month-old girl who fell ill while in ICE detention died two months after she was released).

Different Agencies Have Different Reporting Regulations 

According to Hajar Habbach, a program associate for asylum at the watchdog organization Physicians for Human Rights, out of the three agencies which house migrant children, ICE is the only one legally required to publicly announce when a person dies in its custody (within 90 days, according to congressional requirements).*

Although CBP lacks such a legal requirement, the agency's transparency policy is outlined in an internal memo. In order to "secure and maintain the public trust," the memo calls for CBP to report any death in the agency's custody to Congress within 24 hours, and to make a statement to the media around the same time.

ORR, like CBP, has no legal requirement to make a public report about an in-custody death. This means that, when an unaccompanied minor dies in ORR custody, the media may not be notified. But ORR's internal policies do require that the agency notify "appropriate Federal, State, and local authorities" and the child's parents or next of kin, as well as the consulate of the child's home country. According to CBS News, a consulate general of El Salvador (the home country of the girl who died in September) had no knowledge of the girl's death.

Is It Possible There Have Been Deaths We Don't Know About?

When asked if there have been any deaths in ICE custody since 2016 that the public does not yet know about, an ICE spokesperson responded, "No."

Likewise, when asked the same question, a CBP spokesperson responded, "As per policy, CBP or DHS have announced all deaths."

But ICE and CBP reporting policies only require the agencies to report deaths that happen in the agency's custody. This could mean that children who fall mortally ill while in ICE or CBP custody—but are formally released before they die—might not have their deaths reported.

Take, for instance, Wilmer Josué Ramírez Vásquez, a two-year-old who died after spending time in CBP custody on May 14th. Ramírez Vásquez first fell ill while detained by CBP in April, and was taken to a hospital. There, CBP formally "released" the boy and his mother. Though CBP acknowledged the boy's death when he died weeks later, the agency had no obligation to report his death under the agency's existing policy, because that policy only applies to people who are in CBP custody at the time of their death.

When Pacific Standard asked a spokesperson with the Department of Health and Human Services (ORR's parent agency) if there had been any deaths in ORR custody since 2016 that the public does not yet know about, the spokesperson was not immediately able to respond, and did not get back to Pacific Standard by press time.

Calls for More Transparency

Human rights advocates say that the latest news stories about migrant children's deaths highlight the need for more transparency at the federal level.

"I don't think that we can necessarily say that we know the full picture, or the total number of children who passed away, nor do we know precisely what the circumstances were," says Charanya Krishnaswami, advocacy director for the Americas at Amnesty International.

Krishnaswami notes that, since two Guatemalan children died in CBP custody in December, advocates and members of Congress have called for greater governmental transparency. "This recent revelation underscores why we need that sort of accountability," she says.

*Update—May 28th, 2019: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that ICE is legally required to publicly announce when a person dies in its custody within 90 days.