On Christmas Day, as many fortunate families celebrated with gifts and home-cooked meals, news broke that an 8 year-old boy from Guatemala, identified by reports as Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, died while in the custody of US Customs and Border Protection. His death marks the second death of a child in detention this month, coming just weeks after a 7 year-old Guatemalan girl named Jakelin Ameí Rosmery Caal Maquin died in CBP custody.
Felipe was apprehended and detained with his father near a port of entry in El Paso, Texas on December 18th. While CBP has released a timeline of the days leading up to Felipe’s death, the circumstances that caused the death remain unclear. What is clear, however, is that his death has once again highlighted serious concerns about the Trump administration’s immigration policies, and CBP’s ability to run border facilities in humane ways.
Experts agree that temporary detention facilities at the border – often called “hieleras” because of their cold temperatures – are not equipped to safely care for children. A 2017 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that children should not be subjected to these facilities, which were built for adults. Speaking with the New York Times, a pediatrician on the Texas-Mexico border also affirmed that these facilities are no place for children. “The conditions in which these children are being held are truly shocking,” she stated. “It’s cold, and they are susceptible to influenza and dehydration.”
Meanwhile, in the face of pointed questions, Homeland Security officials have been unable to adequately account for how many people have been harmed in detention due to this administration’s policies. When pressed by Democrats last week about immigrant deaths under her watch, secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen was unable to provide a figure, sparking the outrage of Democratic Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island.
“Madame Secretary, did I understand you correctly to say that as you sit here today, you do not know how many human beings have died while in the custody of the department that you lead?” he asked Nielsen. “And in preparation for today’s hearing, you didn’t ascertain that number, that you don’t know it today?”
Rep. Cicilline’s outrage is shared by many who mourn the tragic deaths of Jakelin and Felipe – a tragedy made all the more stark and devastating by its announcement on Christmas Day. In response to the outcry, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan says the CBP will review its procedures for performing medical checks on children, and work with ICE to ease transportation and housing restrictions, making it easier for kids to get medical treatment. But that doesn’t erase the pain and loss that Jakelin and Felipe’s families are experiencing.
In a searing post about the news, Phillip Picardi, the editor-in-chief of Out, shared a sentiment that resonated with many, highlighting the irony of self-proclaimed Christians who lack the empathy to see these immigrants as human beings.
“When I was younger,” he wrote, “I went to Catholic school and CCD classes, where we were taught that the miracle of Christmas wasn’t just in Jesus’ birth. It was also miraculous that this refugee family, including a visibly pregnant woman, was denied help and hospitality and yet, managed to find community and the grace of God to deliver a healthy baby into this world. I am not sure if I believe in Christianity anymore — I find it so hard to have faith these days — but I do know that this headline today is a terrible irony that should be lost on none of us. We are failing. And today, we failed in Jesus’ name. May God, if they’re out there, bring peace to this family.”