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Office of Refugee Resettlement Reviewing Death Of 16-Year-Old Guatemalan Boy


Federal officials are investigating the death of a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy in the custody of Health and Human Services last month. He died of a brain infection after crossing the southern border as an unaccompanied minor. This is the third death of a migrant child in U.S. custody since December. NPR's John Burnett has more.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The still-unnamed teenager crossed from Mexico into El Paso, Texas, on April 19 and was detained by the Border Patrol. A statement from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for the care of migrant children, says a clinician with the Border Patrol observed no health problems. The youngster was transferred the next day to a large government-contracted child shelter in South Texas called Casa Padre. It's a cavernous converted Walmart in the city of Brownsville run by Southwest Key. This Austin-based nonprofit houses more migrant children for ORR throughout the country than any other shelter provider.

ORR says the teenager did not complain of health problems when he arrived at the shelter, but the next day, April 21, he came down with fever, chills and a headache. He ended up in intensive care at a children's hospital, diagnosed with a severe infection in his brain. Despite surgery to relieve pressure in his head, the child died eight days later.

ROBERT CAREY: It's devastating to staff when something like this happens - tragedy.

BURNETT: Robert Carey was head of ORR in the last two years of the Obama administration. He recalls two migrant children died on his watch. He said they arrived in the U.S. with pre-existing medical problems. ORR has launched a full review of the cause of the 16-year-old's death and how it was handled.

CAREY: It's taken very, very seriously. And there's a review of all the procedures and all the actions that were taken with regard to that child.

BURNETT: The Guatemalan Foreign Relations Ministry says it has notified the boy's family back home in Chiquimula province, and the body is being repatriated. The case underscores the hazards of these often grueling and clandestine trips from Central America to the U.S. border and the delicate state of health of some asylum-seekers. Human rights advocates are concerned that this is the third death of an immigrant child in U.S. custody in five months. In December, two other Guatemalan children - Jakelin Caal Maquin and Felipe Gomez Alonzo, 7 and 8 years old - died of complications from bacterial infections after they were apprehended by the Border Patrol. Like the 16-year-old, they were rushed to the hospital where they died.

Jess Morales Rocketto is chair of a migrant rights group called Families Belong Together.

JESS MORALES ROCKETTO: This is part of a very disturbing pattern where we find out, as we learn more about these deaths, is the children who are losing their lives in custody, it's because they're sick. They are not receiving adequate care and attention in the facilities.

BURNETT: The deaths of Jakelin and Felipe prompted Customs and Border Protection to spend millions to assign contract medical personnel to Border Patrol stations. They're now supposed to screen and triage all arriving migrants. Border Patrol officials say they're transporting more than 60 of them to the hospital every day. The fatality of a third migrant child happens amid a historic surge of Central American children and families crossing the southern border, many to request asylum. More than 100,000 were taken into custody last month.

Yesterday, the White House asked for 4 1/2 billion additional dollars in humanitarian aid for arriving migrants. More than half of that request is for increased shelter capacity for unaccompanied children. And Robert Carey thinks it's important for his former agency, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, as it adds even more beds, to be mindful of a sense of scale.

CAREY: What kind of care is being envisioned? Is it a large barracks or a tent city on a military base in a remote location? The ideal setting for children is smaller settings that are child-friendly spaces.

BURNETT: More proof of the danger of the migrant trail - today, a Border Patrol official reports nine Hondurans were in a raft crossing the Rio Grande when it overturned in the current. Five were rescued. A 10-month-old infant drowned. And the bodies of a man and two other young children have not been found. John Burnett, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.