Nielsen to visit border after migrant death

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is set to visit the US-Mexico border days after 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo died in the custody of US Customs and Border Protection. CNN's Dan Simon has the latest.

Posted: Dec 29, 2018 1:33 AM
Updated: Dec 29, 2018 2:10 AM

Agustín Gómez Pérez secured a loan to take his eight-year-old son far away from the impoverished village in the highlands of western Guatemala.

"He was going to work to repay the loan and give his son a better future," his daughter, Catarina, said in an interview in Yalambojoch, in the Guatemalan province of Huehuetenango.

On Christmas Day, Gomez called home to say his son, Felipe Gomez Alonzo, had died the previous night. The boy was the second Guatemalan child to die in US Customs and Border Protection custody this month.

Felipe had been taken to a hospital, released, then returned to the hospital. His father said the boy had trouble breathing. He vomited blood.

"He didn't last very long," Catarina said of her half-brother.

Felipe's mother, also named Catarina, stood in the family's wood-slat shack in a remote Guatemalan village near the Mexican border Thursday and implored American authorities to release his body. She also asked that Agustín Gómez be allowed to join his brother in Virginia and work to repay the nearly $7,000 loan that helped finance the journey north.

"Otherwise, how will we live?" she said in a Mayan dialect, with her daughter translating.

Though US authorities have not released the father's name, a highly-placed source close to Guatemala's Foreign Ministry and a US Homeland Security official both identified him.

Felipe's mother said she and Agustín Gómez agreed that the boy would join his father on the journey north because of the economic hardship in the small mountain village. The mother, Catarina Alonzo Perez, remained behind with her other children.

The family had been struggling to make ends meet, according to the midwife who helped delivered the boy.

"There are days when we don't eat. We aren't finding any thing," Maria Domingo Lopez, the midwife, told the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre on Thursday.

There weren't many opportunities to make a living in the rolling, verdant hills of Huehuetenango, according to Lucas Perez Garcia, the village mayor.

"The entire community feels the pain of the child's loss," he told CNN. "People are coming together to help them."

Some residents were raising money for them, he said. Others donated wood to burn in their makeshift stove.

Last year, about 200 residents from the area migrated to the United States, Garcia said. Most have not returned. Between November and December, many more headed north.

A small altar in honor of Felipe went up in the thatched roof house where his family lives.

"He was a good boy," his half-sister recalled.

The boy was apprehended with his father on December 18 at a location about 3 miles west of the Paso Del Norte port of entry in El Paso, Texas, for illegal entry, according to a CBP timeline of the days before the Felipe's death.

On Monday, Felipe was taken to a hospital and released before being taken back to the hospital. He died shortly before midnight at Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center in Alamogordo, New Mexico, about 90 miles north of the border crossing in El Paso, Texas.

"The poor child couldn't hold on," said Domingo Lopez, the midwife.

The cause of death unclear. An autopsy was scheduled for Wednesday in Albuquerque.

Second child to die in CBP custody

Felipe's death, just weeks after a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl died while being held by CBP, has prompted criticism of the federal agency's handling of a surge of migrant children at the southwest border, and led to more medical screenings of minors.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen this week called the death of a child in government custody "deeply concerning and heartbreaking." She announced several policy changes around the government's care of migrant children and reiterated her call for "parents to not place their children at risk by taking a dangerous journey north."

On December 8, Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7, died in a hospital two days after she was taken to a Border Patrol station. Her body was returned home last weekend to the indigenous Guatemalan community of Raxruha.

Her family said she fled the country with her father, Nery Gilberto Caal, 29, in search of a better life. She survived the 2,000-mile journey from northern Guatemala only to die less than 48 hours after Border Patrol agents detained her at a US-Mexico border crossing.

Her death marked another flashpoint in the debate over the Trump administration's hardline approach to immigration enforcement.

Before this month, there were six deaths in CBP custody in 2018, and none of those were children, DHS officials said.

Prior to Jakelin's death, no child had died in CBP custody in more than a decade, Homeland Security officials said.

In the last two months alone, the Border Patrol has apprehended 139,817 undocumented migrants on the Southwest Border, compared to 74,946 during the same time in fiscal 2018, according to Nielsen.

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