Agustín Gómez tries to live by the principle that the past is the past. But he still struggles to accept that he can no longer do anything for his son, Felipe, who died in the care of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in December 2018 shortly after crossing the border.
“It was like I died with my son,” Gómez, 48, said in a phone interview. “And I’m still really sad.”
Felipe was the second of five Guatemalan minors to die in U.S. custody from December 2018 to May 2019. An autopsy later revealed he died of complications from influenza B and sepsis. After his death, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the parent agency of CBP, ordered an internal investigation into the handling of the case. The resulting report published in December 2019 found no misconduct or malfeasance by DHS employees in charge of the boy’s care.
Months after DHS closed its investigation, the nonprofit ethics watchdog American Oversight published previously unseen government documents containing affidavits from CBP personnel with information about Felipe’s death. When I spoke with him recently, Gomez disputed some claims in the affidavits about the care that his son received and his approval of it. “I’m not very convinced” that they gave him the proper care, Gómez said.
After reviewing official CBP documents, the death investigation, autopsy and toxicology report, some discrepancies within the official government account of events leading up to Felipe’s death came to light. More than 18 months after his death, Felipe’s family is still left wondering if more could have been done to save the healthy, young boy who left his misty mountain town in Guatemala in December 2018.
“Here, everything is difficult”
Yalambojoch, Huehuetenango is a community of mainly subsistence farmers nestled in the mountains near the Guatemalan border with Mexico. A mom-and-pop corner store — said to be built with remittance money — stands at the center of town. Chickens wander in and out. The town’s winding roads are muddy from the intermittent drizzle.
Felipe’s family house — built with cinder blocks and a tin roof — sits atop a small hill. His mother Catarina Alonzo and her three surviving children live off the maize and beans that grow on the small plot of land Gómez inherited from his father.
“Here, we just eat beans but there [in the U.S.], there is food. The kids grow more quickly,” said Alonzo in her native indigenous Mayan language, Chuj. She was sitting in her kitchen on a foggy morning in August 2019. “Here, everything is difficult,” added Gómez’s brother Andrés, who translated the interview to Spanish.
NGOs and government assistance rarely reaches this remote mountain town. Politicians seldom leave the congested streets of Guatemala City to make the eight hour drive through the western highlands to the clearer air of these humble towns of Huehuetenango. In turn, residents hardly ever venture on the multi-bus journey to the country’s political hub.
And yet, from even farther away, el norte’s footprint on the collective consciousness of Yalambojoch— as reflected in the polished houses built by remittances sent from North Carolina, Texas, or Tennessee—may be stronger than that of the nation’s own capital.
“People migrate because they don’t have opportunities,” said Rudi Gordillo Velasco, mayor of Nentón, Huehuetenango, the municipality where Yalambojoch is located. “They don’t have jobs. Their harvests are all lost and even if they do have a good year, the problem is there is no market for their product.”
Migration from the region dates back to at least the 1980s, when the country was in the throes of an armed conflict between government forces and an array of leftist rebel groups. Many indigenous Mayan peasants from places like Yalambojoch took up arms to demand land rights and an end to racism and political exclusion.
Agustín was born in 1972, 12 years into the armed conflict that ended in 1996. As a guerrilla hotspot, the frequent shoot-outs in Yalambojoch meant daily life was thrown in disarray and villagers lived in fear. Teachers stopped coming to school. “They were scared of the guerrillas,” Andrés said.
The family fled across the border to Mexico, as did many of their neighbors. When the fighting died down months later, they were able to come back under a UN refugee resettlement program.
A peace agreement in 1996 included changes to the Guatemalan constitution meant to promote social inclusion of the country’s many indigenous groups, including a land distribution program. But more than two decades later inequality remains rampant in the majority-indigenous department of Huehuetenango, said Gordillo Velasco. Communities lack basic infrastructure like roads, running water, and access to quality healthcare and education. Food insecurity and malnutrition remain serious issues.
Without a formal education, the Gómez brothers must plant maize and beans to survive. “They made peace,” Andrés said. “But there’s no help for us.”
By December 2018, Catarina was pregnant again. So Gómez took out a loan of 60,000 quetzales, or nearly $7,800 dollars, for a coyote and decided to go to the United States.
When Felipe found out his father was leaving, he cried and begged to go with him. His father relented. He couldn’t say no to little Felipe. Gómez and Felipe set out from Yalambojoch on December 14, 2018. Felipe was healthy and in good spirits, recalled Gómez. The family had taken out a loan of 60,000 quetzales, or nearly $7,800, to pay for a smuggler.
After five days of traveling through Mexico by bus, the father and son crossed the U.S.-Mexico border near El Paso, where Border Patrol apprehended them on the afternoon of December 18, according to a CBP statement. “My son was very calm when immigration caught us — very calm,” said Gómez.
Gómez remembers being in at least four different cells while in detention. All of them were cold. The pair were given just mylar blankets to keep warm. He remembers Felipe refused to eat the burritos they were served and would only eat the fruit given to them. He said he was never asked if he wanted a translator for his native language, Chuj.
A newly released affidavit states that Gómez said Felipe was eating well, and would even try to get in line twice to receive an extra meal.
“Since I’m older, I can handle hunger,” said Gómez. “But with my son, who knows if that’s why he died?”
According to the CBP statement released after Felipe’s death, a processing agent “noticed that the child was coughing and appeared to have glossy eyes” around 9 a.m. on December 24.
Gómez told me that his son woke up around 3 a.m on December 24, complaining of stomach pains. The pain persisted and around 8 a.m, Gómez tried to alert the agents. They paid him no mind, possibly because of a language barrier. “I’m not going to excuse them for that,” he said. Finally, one Spanish-speaking agent responded to Gómez’s concerns and told him that he would take him and his son to the hospital.
The newly released documents obtained by American Oversight corroborate Gómez’s account, stating that it was Gómez who advised the Border Patrol officer around 8 a.m. that his son was sick with a fever.
The father and son were then transported to the Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center, where Felipe was seen by a doctor who said he had a cold, according to the CBP statement issued shortly after his death. Felipe was cleared for release with prescriptions for amoxicillin and Ibuprofen, the statement says. Gómez said that he did not speak directly to the doctor because of a language barrier. “They didn’t ask me anything and I didn’t talk to them,” he said. CBP records confirm this.
Felipe and Gómez returned to the Border Patrol station without medicine, said Gómez. The affidavit says that the Border Patrol officers bought the prescriptions with their own money and administered the medicine to Felipe around 6 p.m. Gómez remembers that the agents arrived with some kind of liquid medicine around that time, but he did not know what medicine it was.
A toxicology report shows that Felipe had 100 mL of diphenhydramine in his bloodstream, which is an antihistamine often found in Benadryl. This medicine is sometimes prescribed to treat symptoms of the flu, like congestion, according to Carlos Gutiérrez, a doctor based in El Paso who often provides volunteer care for migrant children released from U.S. custody. The report did not find traces of amoxicillin or ibuprofen, but these medicines tend to leave the bloodstream within a few hours, he said.
CBP protocol as of 2015, and still current, states that migrants in custody should self-administer their own prescribed medication, unless the migrant needs help because of age or disability. It does not specify how prescriptions are bought or who is responsible for paying.
Often, “it’s up to the agents if they want to chip in [to buy the medicine],” said Gutiérrez, based on his contact with migrants released from custody. Since CBP facilities are meant to be temporary pending transfer to a permanent facility, until recently, they had “no medical screening or care capability,” according to a November 2019 report by the Homeland Security Advisory Council.
After taking the medicine, Felipe complained of pains in his stomach and his chest, according to the affidavit. Gómez alerted the agents. “I can no longer stand it. I think I’m going to die,” the 8-year-old told his father, according to the affidavit. Gómez does not recall this statement.
In transit to the hospital Felipe became unresponsive, according to the affidavit. When they arrived, Felipe was rushed inside. About an hour later, a doctor told Gómez that his son had died of an unknown cause. An autopsy later revealed that Felipe died of complications of an influenza B infection and sepsis.
According to an agent’s note in the affidavit, Felipe’s father Gómez “did not blame anyone” for his son’s death because the Border Patrol agents did “everything possible for his son.”
But Gómez disputes saying this. “That was the great error that they committed,” Gómez told me. “Because there was never a moment when I sat with them and I told them how I felt about how they attended me.” He did express gratitude for the help of one Spanish-speaking agent who was more attentive to him and his son than other agents. It was the same agent who took them to the hospital.
Improved Medical Care?
After Felipe’s death, the Trump administration promised to improve care for migrants in its custody, particularly children. DHS ordered more thorough medical checks for minors in its custody. CBP published a new medical directive in December 2019 mandating more resources for medical care.
Dr. Gutiérrez is suspicious as to what these changes mean in practice. “It's just poor medical care, if they even get any medical care,” he said.
Now, as the coronavirus spreads through detention centers, the risks posed by the rapidly spreading pandemic have once again shined a spotlight on the unsanitary, cramped conditions for migrants in U.S. custody.
“It’s very difficult to control the spread of influenza in detention centers. It’s even more difficult to control the spread of COVID,” said Alia Sunderji, a pediatric emergency physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She was among a group of doctors who penned a letter to Congress in August 2019 warning of the spread of influenza and other infectious diseases among children in detention along with recommendations to improve care.
Since Felipe’s death, the problems regarding migrant children’s health have shifted as Trump administration policies — implemented both before and during the coronavirus — have worsened conditions.
Since January 2019, the U.S. has sent more than 60,000 asylum seekers to await their court dates in dangerous Mexican border cities where they are vulnerable to kidnappings, robberies, and other violence. There, they live in unsanitary conditions in makeshift camps or cramped shelters.
Then, in August 2019, the Trump administration moved to end the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement, which sets out standards for care of migrant children in U.S. custody, including a 72-hour limit for children in CBP facilities. Felipe was in CBP care at least double the time limit, one of many documented violations of the Flores agreement. Immigrant advocates say ending these protections would have devastating — and potentially deadly — consequences for migrant children.
Now, citing public health concerns, the U.S. is rapidly expelling migrants who cross the border in disregard of due process or the international principle of non-refoulement. Since the order in March more than 43,000 migrants have been expelled. At least 900 were minors and legal rights groups have challenged the expulsions in court for violating due process.
As of early June, more than 120 minors were in ICE custody. A judge ordered them released by July 17 because of the risk of contracting the coronavirus in these facilities, but they now face possible separation from their mothers, with whom they are currently detained.
These policies have created a situation in which many “invisible children” are at risk in Mexican border cities or after deportation, said Dr. Sunderji. “Those are the children we’ll never hear about when they die,” she said. “What happens to them? Who is responsible for their deaths?”
In January 2019, Gómez was released from U.S. custody and went to live with friends in Nashville. “I’m grateful they let me stay here,” he said of the decision to release him while his immigration case is ongoing. Before the coronavirus hit, he dedicated most nights to cleaning restaurants to pay off his $7,000 debt to a smuggler.
In January of this year, finally debt free, he started sending money to his struggling family in Guatemala. But, as restaurants closed under a stay-at-home order, he lost work in March. In recent weeks, he has begun working part-time, but is struggling to pay his rent.
Gómez’s immigration case is still pending and he worries sharing his version of events could negatively affect his case. “What happens if they [U.S. immigration officials] get mad and report me?” said Gómez. But he wants his story heard.
A lawyer is investigating Felipe’s case, but Gómez said he has not been in touch with him recently and does not know the status of that case.
Gómez holds out hope that his wife and kids will be able to reunite with him legally in the U.S. some day down the line. He wouldn’t dare pay a coyote to bring them because of the risks. “It’s better to wait,” he said.
As coronavirus restrictions have slowly lifted, Gómez is back to sweeping the floor or wiping down tables in Nashville. He may never know exactly what happened to Felipe. But he has to keep healthy and keep working—he has a wife and three other kids to keep alive.
This investigation is part of Reporting the Border, a project of the International Center for Journalists in partnership with the Border Center for Journalists and Bloggers