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Are There More Migrant Minors Who Have Died in Government Custody?

The agency in charge of unaccompanied minors arriving on the border wouldn't answer key questions about the number of children who have died since Trump took office.
A girl from Central America rests on thermal blankets at a detention facility run by the U.S. Border Patrol on September 8th, 2014, in McAllen, Texas.

A girl from Central America rests on thermal blankets at a detention facility run by the U.S. Border Patrol on September 8th, 2014, in McAllen, Texas.

The government agency that takes custody over all unaccompanied minors who arrive on the border has been unable to answer questions about the number of children who have died in its custody in the years since President Donald Trump took office.

When children who are traveling by themselves either ask for asylum at ports of entry or are apprehended by Border Patrol, they are eventually transferred into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. ORR—an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—maintains a series of shelters for the unaccompanied minors, many of which are run by independent contractors.

As of now, two children are known to have died in ORR custody since 2017: Darlyn Valle, who died on September 29th, 2018, and Juan de León Gutiérrez, who died April 30th, 2019.

But while de León Gutiérrez's death was reported soon after he died, Valle's death was not announced when she died in September. It would take eight months for the public to learn the Salvadoran 10-year-old had died, after CBS News first reported her death on May 22nd, 2019. The government did report the girl's death to her family soon after she died, and it is plausible that Congressional oversight committees had access to information about her death.

Still, the fact that it took so long for the public to learn that Valle had died led some opponents of the Trump administration to accuse the government of trying to hide her death.

"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," Representative Joaquin Castro (D–Texas) said in an interview with CBS.

On May 23rd, Pacific Standard sent an email to HHS asking if, since 2016, any other children had died in ORR custody that the public had not been made aware of. A media contact in the HHS's Administration for Children and Families office confirmed that the email had been received, and said: "[The] inquiry is with the program office for response—we'll get the information back to you just as soon as we have it."

HHS never got back to Pacific Standard's inquiry, nor to two subsequent inquiries sent the next day and again on June 5th.

ORR Likely Has Comprehensive Data on All In-Custody Deaths

Robert Carey, who served as the director of ORR for the Obama administration from 2015 to 2017, says the agency should have detailed records of any child deaths or major medical instances.

"I think they'd be able to very quickly ascertain how many deaths there had been," Carey says, when asked if HHS's slow response to Pacific Standard's inquiry might have been because of a lack of data.

When asked if it was plausible that more children had died in ORR custody besides the two the public knows about, Carey says: "I really have no idea. I would think that, if more [deaths] happened, it would be known to the authorities within HHS, and Congressional oversight, and the administration."

Carey says that, if additional deaths hadn't been made public, that could be because of concerns about children's privacy. "There’s a balancing with security and transparency," he says. "You need to limit how much information you give out and to whom. But at the same time, there needs to be oversight."

Why Won't the Government Answer Questions About the Death of Unaccompanied Minors?

HHS's non-response to questions about the number deaths in its custody contrasted with other government agencies' answers to similar inquiries.

As Pacific Standard reported in May, three different agencies have migrant children in custody: Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and HHS. All children who arrive on the border are first placed in CBP custody. If children are traveling with families, they may then go into ICE custody; if children are unaccompanied minors, then they'll be placed in ORR's custody. Unaccompanied children are then either placed in government shelters or with stateside sponsors.

When Pacific Standard asked ICE and CBP the same question as HHS—Have there been any deaths since 2016 that the public does not know about?—spokespeople from both agencies answered promptly that all in-custody deaths had been reported.

Unlike Immigration and Customs Enforcement (which is required by law to publicly report all in-custody deaths) or Customs and Border Protection (which is not required by law to report, but does have an internal policy to announce all in-custody deaths), ORR does not have any obligation to report children's death to the public or the media.

Jennifer Podkul, the senior director of policy and advocacy for Kids in Need of Defense—an advocacy organization for immigrant children—says it's plausible that there are more children who have died than the public is aware of.

"It's certainly possible," Podkul says. "I don't have any specific information about specific cases [that have't been reported], but there are a few reasons why I say it's plausible: One is that there's no mandatory reporting requirement for ORR, unlike ICE. And the other reason, that's really important, is that ORR doesn't have any sort of public monitoring system."

According to Podkul, though ORR and HHS completes reviews of the facilities they run for children—both those run by the government and those run by contractors—those sorts of audits aren't released to the public.