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Nielsen deploys Coast Guard medics to US-Mexico border, Hoyer vows probe of child deaths

Kirstjen Nielsen at the White House in Washington on Oct. 12, 2017.

T.J. KIRKPATRICK/BLOOMBERG

By MARIA SACCHETTI | The Washington Post | Published: December 26, 2018

WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is deploying the U.S. Coast Guard's medical corps to the southern border to screen immigrants after two young children from Guatemala died after being taken into federal custody.

Senior administration officials said Wednesday that Nielsen will visit some of U.S. Customs and Border Protection's temporary holding facilities later this week. It is unclear if she will visit the New Mexico checkpoint where 8-year-old Felipe Alonzo-Gomez was held shortly before he died late Monday.

Nielsen has also asked the Centers for Disease Control to investigate the source of an increase in sick migrants taken into custody, saying "dozens" have been taken to border hospitals with flu-like and other symptoms. One question, they said, is whether illness is spreading in migrant shelters in Mexico.

Alonzo-Gomez, an 8-year-old from Guatemala, died shortly before midnight on Monday at the Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center in Alamogordo, New Mexico, after several days in Border Patrol custody with his father.

His death came little more than two weeks after 7-year-old Jakelin Caal died Dec. 8 of dehydration and shock less than 36 hours after she and her father were taken into custody at the border.

Federal officials said Wednesday called the death a "tragedy" and said Homeland Security is investigating it. A senior official said such deaths are "incredibily rare" and that a child had not died in border custody for more than a decade. Six adults died in CBP custody in 2018, officials said.

The deaths have shaken migrants and Border Patrol agents and ignited a fresh round of finger-pointing this week days before Democrats are poised to seize control of the House with plans to investigate conditions in federal immigration custody.

"We have been sounding the alarm on this for months," a Homeland Security official said.

House Democrats plan to investigate the deaths of young migrant children in government custody, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said in a statement Wednesday. The No. 2 House Democrat described himself as "heartbroken" by news of the latest death and called on Congress to "ask serious questions about what happened and who bears responsibility."

"After the new Democratic Majority begins, the House will hold hearings on this young boy's death and the death of seven-year-old Jakelin Caal earlier this month -- as well as the conditions under which thousands of children are being held," Hoyer said.

Homeland Security officials, who spoke to reporters Wednesday to provide context on condition that they not be named, criticized Congress for failing to provide additional funding for a border wall and other measures to confront a rapidly-changing influx of immigrants along the southern border, where far more families are filling holding cells that were initially designed to contain single men.

Border Patrol officials said they are currently apprehending about 2,100 immigrants a day, and 1,400 to 1,500 are families.

Migrants traveling as part of a family accounted for 58 percent of those taken into custody in November. Border Patrol agents apprehended a record 25,172 families on the southwest border last month, including 11,489 in the Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol sector in southern Texas and 6,434 in the El Paso sector, which covers far western Texas and New Mexico.

The Border Patrol's El Paso sector had custody of both children who died and on Tuesday ordered immediate medical assessments on all 700 children in its custody, according to communications with health-care professionals obtained by The Washington Post.

Emergency medical technicians at each station in the sector, which includes El Paso in far west Texas and all of New Mexico, have been told to do initial assessments of each child and that if they believe a child is ill or injured, they are to be taken to a hospital for further assessment.

As of Tuesday night, almost all had received a screening in addition to the initial intake assessment, officials said Wednesday.

The child who died Tuesday had become ill Monday, according to a CBP news release. A Border Patrol agent took him and his father to Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center in Alamogordo, N.M., where the boy was diagnosed with a cold, according to the CBP.

Later, he was found to have a fever and was held for an additional 90 minutes before he was released with prescriptions for an antibiotic and ibuprofen.

But the child became more seriously ill Monday night, when he vomited and was taken back to the hospital. He died shortly before midnight on Christmas Eve; earlier information provided to the media said he died later than that.

The cause of the child's death is not known.

The Washington Post's Felicia Somnez, Bob Moore and Nick Miroff contributed to this report.

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