Senior House Democrats Send Letter to DHS Inspector General Demanding Answers In Tragedy of 7-Year-Old Girl Who Died in Customs and Border Protection Custody
Today, Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee, led a letter signed by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), Chairman Elect of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Member of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Acting Inspector General John Kelly following news of a 7-year-old girl who died last week while in the custody of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials. The death, first revealed by the Washington Post, raises significant questions about the conditions in CBP’s short-term holding facilities, and the general suitability of such facilities for families given that Border Patrol stations were never designed to hold children. In their letter, the Members requested the IG’s office begin an immediate formal investigation with the expectation that DHS would quickly provide answers to Congress on why this tragedy happened, what policies may have been contributing factors in a young girl's death, and how it was never reported by CBP as directed by Congress in the statement accompanying the FY18 DHS Funding bill.
“Due to the seriousness of this tragedy and the many questions that remain, we request you initiate an investigation into this incident, as well as CBP policies or practices that may have contributed to the child’s death,” the Members wrote. “The investigation should focus on policies and practices designed to protect health and safety, as well as policies and practices that may result in increased migration through particularly harsh terrain.”
A copy of the letter to DHS Acting IG Kelly can be found below and here:
December 14, 2018
Mr. John Kelly
Dear Mr. Kelly:
We write to express our profound concern and sadness over the death of a 7-year-old girl in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody last week. This death raises significant questions about the conditions in CBP’s short-term holding facilities, and the general suitability of such facilities for families and children. We are also troubled by the fact that we learned of this incident from the Washington Post, rather than through congressional notification as required under Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appropriations laws. To address these and other concerns, we request that you open an investigation immediately.
According to information provided to Congress after the Washington Post report was already public, U.S. Border Patrol apprehended the 7-year-old girl around 10:00 pm on the evening of December 6, 2018. She was apprehended with a large group of migrants who turned themselves into Border Patrol custody. At 6:25 am the following morning, the 7-year-old girl began experiencing seizures and later died, according to an initial medical diagnosis obtained by CBP, of septic shock, fever, and dehydration. It is so far unclear whether the girl and accompanying migrants were provided any food or water during the 8.5 hour period in which she remained in Border Patrol custody.
Due to the seriousness of this tragedy and the many questions that remain, we request you initiate an investigation into this incident, as well as CBP policies or practices that may have contributed to the child’s death. The investigation should focus on policies and practices designed to protect health and safety, as well as policies and practices that may result in increased migration through particularly harsh terrain. For example, your office issued a report in September describing the impact of CBP’s policy of turning away asylum seekers. That report concluded that the practice of turning away asylum seekers at international bridges and “limiting the volume of asylum-seekers entering at ports of entry” may have caused an increase in unauthorized crossing attempts. One asylum seeker interviewed by the OIG stated that “she had been turned away three times by an officer on the bridge before deciding to take her chances on illegal entry.” These facts are particularly troubling considering clear instructions from DHS Secretary Nielsen that asylum seekers should present themselves at ports of entry, instead of crossing between the ports.
The investigation should also examine the appropriateness of holding children in Border Patrol stations, which were never designed to hold children. On Tuesday, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, testifying that the agency’s short-term holding cells are “incompatible” with increased migration of family units and unaccompanied children. The Commissioner added that “[o]ur Border Patrol stations were built decades ago to handle mostly male single adults in custody, not families and children.”
Finally, you should investigate CBP’s failure to timely notify Congress of this incident. It is hard to overstate our frustration with the fact that we learned of this incident through media reports one week after the incident occurred. It is clear that CBP failed to follow the reporting requirements laid out in last year’s omnibus appropriations bill until after the news of this death was already public. It is imperative that CBP, and DHS more generally, provide prompt notification to Congress when these types of incidents occur. DHS can and must do better.
Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter. We look forward to your timely response and notification that an investigation has been opened.
CC: The Honorable Bob Goodlatte, Chairman, House Judiciary Committee
 DHS Office of Inspector General, Special Review – Initial Observations Regarding Family Separation Issues Under the Zero Tolerance Policy (Sep. 27, 2018), https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2018-10/OIG-18-84-Sep18.pdf.