Department of Homeland Security promises changes to protect health of migrant children


The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is promising changes to how the agency handles the health of migrant children in U.S. custody, following the death of a second child in less than a month.

DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Wednesday said the agency will adopt a “series of extraordinary protective measures,” including having the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigate an uptick in “sick children” crossing the border.

Nielsen also said she asked the Coast Guard Medical Corps to provide an assessment of Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) medical programs and make appropriate recommendations for improvements.
The announcement comes as congressional Democrats are promising an investigation into the death of an 8-year-old boy from Guatemala, the second such death of a child in CBP custody in a little over two weeks.

The boy, Felipe Gómez Alonzo, passed away after being hospitalized in New Mexico with flu-like symptoms, high fever and vomiting.

He had been detained with his father since Dec. 18 after crossing into the country illegally.

His death prompted CBP to order medical checks on all children in custody.

"At my direction, all children in Border Patrol custody have been given a thorough medical screening,” Nielsen said. “Moving forward, all children will receive a more thorough hands-on assessment at the earliest possible time post apprehension — whether or not the accompanying adult has asked for one.”

CBP officials did not respond to questions about what those medical checks will entail, or what kind of care children in agency custody currently receive.

According to Nielsen, it’s been more than a decade since CBP had a child die in their custody.

“It is now clear that migrants, particularly children, are increasingly facing medical challenges and harboring illness caused by their long and dangerous journey," she said.

Nielsen defended the agency’s response, and said the number of people seeking to cross the southern border is pushing the immigration system “to a breaking point.”

She blamed smugglers, traffickers and the children’s own parents who “put these minors at risk by embarking on the dangerous and arduous journey north.”

Nielsen said she will be traveling to the border later this week to see firsthand the medical screenings and conditions at Border Patrol stations.

Nielsen noted that Border Patrol stations were never meant to be long-term holding facilities.

According to CBP’s timeline of events, Gómez and his father had been held in various Border Patrol stations for six days — almost twice as long as what's called for under CBP guidelines.

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