- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Border Patrol agents were blameless in the highly publicized deaths of two juvenile undocumented immigrants, and also showed “great concern” for the two children and rushed to get them medical care, the Homeland Security inspector general said Wednesday.

In fact, the first medical care the two children got came because they were caught by agents, who got them to a hospital, the inspector general told the House Homeland Security Committee, which is investigating the children’s deaths.

In one case, an agent even paid for a medication for one of the children out of his own pocket.

Democrats on the panel weren’t buying it, searching for blame at the White House, with President Trump’s get-tough border policies. They said the government should have had better medical care available in remote areas of the border when Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7, and Felipe Gomez-Alonso, 8, both died in December 2018 after making the journey from Central America.

Their deaths and the reaction from Capitol Hill revealed the deep split in immigration policy.

Republicans said the blame should lie with the cartels that enticed the families to make the rough trip, with Jakelin’s father who lied to Border Patrol agents about his daughter’s condition, and with the remoteness of the New Mexico spot where they snuck into the U.S. making it impossible to get better care faster.

In Felipe’s case, he was mistreated by medical personnel at the hospital, with a misdiagnosis on his first trip and a botched intubation his second time.

In each case, Border Patrol agents did what they could, said Joseph V. Cuffari, the inspector general.

“Both of our investigations determined that all CBP employees who were involved did everything possible to ensure both children received medical treatment. Our investigations did not find misconduct or malfeasance on the part of any CBP personnel,” he concluded.

In Felipe’s case, one agent even went to a pharmacy and paid for a prescription for the boy out of his own pocket after being told insurance wouldn’t cover it, investigators found.

Felipe died of complications from the flu and sepsis. Jakelin died of organ failure stemming from sepsis.

Dr. Fiona S. Danaher, a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital and instructor at Harvard Medical School, told the Homeland Security Committee the children could have been saved had the government had better specialized pediatric care available at the remote regions of the border where they crossed.

“In both Jakelin and Felipe’s cases, Border Patrol agents’ lack of basic understanding of pediatric disease processes led to deadly delays in accessing medical care,” she told the committee.

But Rep. Mark Green, a Tennessee Republican and medical doctor who as a former U.S. Army major treated cases across the globe, said it was impossible to expect world-class pediatric care in Antelope Wells, the border crossing point where Jakelin snuck in with her father in 2018.

Antelope Wells is one of the remotest parts of the border, a two-hour drive from the nearest Border Patrol station and a five-hour drive from the nearest children’s hospital.

“Dr. Danaher’s written testimony is blatantly partisan,” the congressman said.

Jakelin came across as part of a group of about 160 migrants. According to the investigation, her father had been asking fellow migrants for medications for her condition during the journey, but when questioned by agents about her status he didn’t report anything wrong.

Dr. Danaher said that was to be expected. The father didn’t have the privacy space to disclose “potentially sensitive medical information” because of that large group.

She also said when the father did ask for help during the long drive back to the Border Patrol station, he was told it would have to wait until they arrived. That, she said, underscored a “power dynamic” that keeps people from requesting help.

Mr. Green said it was silly to blame agents, who had to triage the 160 migrants at night in the remote part of the border, for not being able to respond better to someone who was apparently withholding information about his own daughter.

“That dynamic existed because he crossed the border illegally and then didn’t tell agents Jakelin was sick,” Mr. Green said.

But Rep. Kathleen Rice, New York Democrat, said Felipe’s situation was different. She said he arrived at the border healthy, then caught the flu while in CBP custody, and his father asked for care.

She said CBP could have released the father and son into the country on parole, rather than hold them.

“We all have to agree that children present at the border and our primary responsibility to them is to keep them healthy and not have them die in our custody,” the congresswoman said. “That means we need to have medically trained personnel at the border.”

Mr. Green countered that with a shortage of medical personnel in the rest of the country, expecting the government to be able to deploy specialists in pediatric care to be on hand in case children are smuggled through remote areas of the border is unrealistic.

Both Democrats and Republicans did seem to agree on the need for more extensive training for agents and officers at the border to recognize medical distress in children.

That was also a recommendation of the Government Accountability Office, which released a report Wednesday examining how CBP handles medical care needs of migrants.

The GAO dinged CBP for failing to properly notify Congress of some deaths in its custody. Of the 31 deaths between 2014 and 2019, only 20 of them were documented in reports to Capitol Hill. All but one of those non-reported instances came before 2017, during the Obama administration.

GAO said when CBP does report deaths, it often doesn’t do so within the 24-hour window Congress has requested.

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