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Teenage Boy Is The Latest Migrant Minor To Die In U.S. Custody


A 16-year-old Guatemalan boy was found dead yesterday at a Border Patrol station in South Texas. Immigration authorities say he complained about feeling sick over the weekend. He was later diagnosed with the flu. And then on Monday morning, he was found unresponsive - that's according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. This boy is the fifth migrant child to die after being apprehended at the U.S. border since December. There are a lot of concerns about the conditions at Border Patrol facilities. They're overflowing with migrants, including many families and children. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. He's in the studio this morning.

Hi, Joel.


KING: So we are learning more about who this teenage boy was.

ROSE: That's right. His name was Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez - 16 years old, as you say, from Guatemala. CBP says he was taken into custody after crossing the border illegally in Hidalgo, Texas. He entered the U.S. with a group of about 70 migrants without his parents. From there, Hernandez Vasquez was moved to a Border Patrol processing center in McAllen. According to CBP, he received a medical screening when he first arrived on the 13th and another one when he reported feeling ill on Sunday, the 19th.

KING: And what kind of treatment did they give him?

ROSE: He was assessed by a nurse practitioner, diagnosed with the flu. He was prescribed Tamiflu, which Border Patrol agents picked up for him from the pharmacy. Then he was transferred to a smaller Border Patrol facility in Weslaco, Texas, in order to isolate him from other migrants at the main, larger processing center. But he was never taken to a hospital. He was discovered unresponsive during a welfare check early Monday morning. And investigations into the death are underway by local police, the FBI, CBP.

KING: And, as we said, five deaths of children after being apprehended so far. But this death is different, yeah?

ROSE: Exactly. Hernandez Vasquez was the first one of these migrant children to die in a Border Patrol facility, not in a hospital bed. And there are still a lot of questions here. And that's one of the biggest - why he wasn't taken to a hospital. It's also not clear why he was still in Border Patrol custody at all after almost a week. By law, Border Patrol is not supposed to hold children for more than 72 hours, though in practice we know that it's been happening a lot more recently.

In this case, Hernandez Vasquez was supposed to be sent to a migrant child shelter overseen by U.S. Health and Human Services. But he wasn't assigned a place at a shelter until Sunday, after he'd been in Border Patrol custody for almost a week. It's not clear why that wasn't done earlier. CBP and Health and Human Services seem to be pointing fingers at each other, but immigrant rights advocates say the bottom line here is he should not have been in the Border Patrol facility for that long.

Wendy Young is the president of Kids in Need of Defense. It's a nonprofit that advocates for migrant children.

WENDY YOUNG: The kids that we're talking about are typically arriving at the border exhausted. You know, they've had a very difficult journey, and they've had a difficult experience in their home country. They very often are in poor health, so providing them with the right care from the moment that they're taken into custody is really critical.

KING: Providing them with the right care - what do we know? Do we know anything about the conditions at these facilities in the Rio Grande Valley right now?

ROSE: Well, everyone agrees that these Border Patrol facilities are just not equipped for the current situation. You've got thousands of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border every day. Overcrowding is a problem across the southern border, but it's especially problematic in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Immigrant rights advocates say that conditions there are only getting worse.

The ACLU of Texas sent a formal complaint on Friday to the internal government watchdogs at DHS and CBP that paints an ugly picture. Thousands of migrant families are detained outside because there's no room in indoor holding cells. Some migrants report not having access to showers or medical care, forced to sleep outside with no bedding or mats. Some say they didn't even get those silver Mylar blankets that you often see in the photos. And all this, the ACLU alleges, is in violation of the government's own standards for humane treatment of migrants.

KING: Well, what do immigration authorities say about this?

ROSE: DHS did not respond to a request for comment on that ACLU complaint. But officials have been warning for months that the immigration system is overwhelmed. More than 100,000 migrants have crossed the border each of the past two months. The majority are families and unaccompanied kids who are fleeing from violence in Central America. DHS says it's stepped up medical screenings, especially for younger children, but the agency is asking Congress for another $4.5 billion to address the situation. And acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan spoke to CBS over the weekend about conditions at the border.


KEVIN MCALEENAN: We went to the border in March and had a press conference, and we were over 14,000 in custody. We're now over 16,000 in custody. So, yes, I'm very concerned about the conditions. These are not appropriate facilities for families and children in particular. These are police stations built for single adults, and that's why we've asked Congress for more resources to address it.

ROSE: CBP is already flying migrants to Border Patrol facilities as far away as San Diego for processing in order to relieve the overcrowding in the Rio Grande Valley. We know they've also considered sending migrants to other parts of the country, including South Florida. But there was loud pushback from state and local officials in Florida, and acting Homeland Security Secretary McAleenan says that's no longer on the table.

KING: NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. Joel, thank you.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.