A Child's Death in the Boot Heel

And the recriminations that have followed

By Andrew R. Arthur on December 18, 2018

Jakelin Caal, a seven-year-old Guatemalan national, died after being taken into custody by the Border Patrol in a place that I can safely say is the most remote spot I have ever been to. That much we know, but much more we don't. That really hasn't stopped the cycle of accusations and recriminations, however.

According to a December 14, 2018, article in the Washington Post:

Twenty-seven hours before she died at an El Paso children's hospital, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal walked across the U.S. border with her father and 161 other migrants outside Antelope Wells, N.M.

It was 9:15 p.m. on Dec. 6, and the small, remote U.S. border crossing was closed for the night. There were four Border Patrol agents on duty, and no medical staff.

The migrants skirted barriers and crossed into the United States. Like most Central American asylum seekers who have been arriving at the border in record numbers, they were not seeking to evade capture but to turn themselves in.

That night, as elsewhere when large groups of parents with children appear at remote border outposts, U.S. agents strained to accommodate the needs of those in their custody. The agents radioed the nearest Border Patrol station in Lordsburg, 90 minutes away, to request a bus, the only one available along that barren desert span of the New Mexico boot heel.

NBC News reported on December 17, 2018:

Hours later, after being put on a bus to a Border Patrol station, she began vomiting and died Dec. 8 at a hospital in El Paso, Texas.


The DHS said Border Patrol agents screened the migrants to identify any health or safety concerns.

"The initial screening revealed no evidence of health issues," the DHS statement released Friday said. "During the screening, the father denied that either he or his daughter were ill."

Authorities said the denial was recorded on a federal form signed by Caal, who speaks an indigenous dialect.

"At this time, they were offered water and food and had access to restrooms," DHS said.

About two hours later, a bus took the first group of migrants, unaccompanied minors, to the Border Patrol station in Lordsburg, New Mexico. The roundtrip took more than three hours.

As the second group, including the Caals, was preparing to leave on the bus around 5 a.m. on Dec. 7, Caal told Border Patrol agents that his daughter had become ill and was vomiting. Agents arranged for an ambulance to meet the family's bus at the border patrol station in Lordsburg about 90 miles away.

When they arrived at the station around an hour and a half later, Caal told authorities his daughter had stopped breathing. Border Patrol emergency medical technicians began administering medical care and called an ambulance, according to DHS.

She was flown by helicopter to Providence Children's Hospital, and Border Patrol took Caal there by vehicle [sic], a drive of more than four hours.

DHS said Jakelin was first taken to the emergency room and then transferred to the pediatric intensive care unit. She died at 12:35 a.m. on Dec. 8.

"The initial indication from Providence Hospital is that she passed due to sepsis shock," the DHS said. "Her father was with her."

"At this point her temperature was 105.9 degrees," the DHS said. "Agents providing medical care revived the child twice."

Every child's death is a tragedy, but Caal's tragic demise is news because of the omitted statement in the excerpt above:

Her death raised questions about how well authorities are prepared to deal with such emergencies and provided fuel for critics of the Trump administration's tough posture toward migrants crossing the border illegally.

The Mayo Clinic describe sepsis as follows:

Sepsis is a potentially life-threatening condition caused by the body's response to an infection. The body normally releases chemicals into the bloodstream to fight an infection. Sepsis occurs when the body's response to these chemicals is out of balance, triggering changes that can damage multiple organ systems.

If sepsis progresses to septic shock, blood pressure drops dramatically. This may lead to death.

Sepsis is caused by infection and can happen to anyone. Sepsis is most common and most dangerous in:

  • Older adults
  • Pregnant women
  • Children younger than 1
  • People who have chronic conditions, such as diabetes, kidney or lung disease, or cancer
  • People who have weakened immune systems

Early treatment of sepsis, usually with antibiotics and large amounts of intravenous fluids, improves chances for survival.

It also describes the causes of that illness:

While any type of infection — bacterial, viral or fungal — can lead to sepsis, the most likely varieties include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Infection of the digestive system (which includes organs such as the stomach and colon)
  • Infection of the kidney, bladder and other parts of the urinary system
  • Bloodstream infection (bacteremia)

There's no indication in any of the press reports that I have read that would indicate that Caal contracted sepsis in Border Patrol custody, so it is safe to presume that she was suffering from sepsis at the time she was apprehended. This raises the question of how long it took her to get to Antelope Wells, and how she got there.

It is been more than a dozen years since I was in Antelope Wells, but it does not appear that much has changed there, except for what the New Mexico Border Authority describes as its property just northeast of the port, and a New Mexico Motor Transportation Division and USDOT site just before the commercial road merges into the Pete Domenici Highway. It is possible, however, that that map is in error, because it describes the port as the "Santa Teresa Port of Entry", which is a different facility altogether.

I went as part of a congressional staff delegation, and we flew in on Blackhawk helicopters that landed in the middle of the "road" just north of the port. We were there for hours, but nobody ever had to move the helicopters because there was no traffic at all. This being the United States, however, there was a modern port of entry there, not as large as some, but larger than you would expect given the traffic volume.

As Wikipedia describes it:

The port was established by Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 and has been staffed since 1928. In 1981 the community had a population of 2, living in trailers behind the customs station, and averaged three people entering per day. In 2005 just 93 pedestrians crossed over the border in the community, which consisted of just four buildings: the port of entry building, two houses and a trailer. Including domestic and international travelers, fewer than 500 buses and privately owned vehicles pass through the community each month, though traffic has been increasing as of 2006 with more international shuttle van service. Despite its low usage, there is no move to close the port, which is the only port between Douglas, Arizona, and Columbus, New Mexico, and provides the most direct route from the United States to the Sierra Madre Occidental.

A separate "Antelope Wells Port of Entry" Wikipedia page has some more updated information:

Antelope Wells receives the least traffic of any Mexico–United States border crossing, so little that the CBP does not report official statistics for the facility. In 2017, the average traffic was estimated at 750–1,000 personal vehicles per month, up from 200–500 five years earlier. In 2014, traffic was reported to sometimes be as low as four vehicles per day. Despite the light traffic volume, a new $11 million U.S. port of entry facility was built in 2013. Mexico has also worked to improve access to the crossing by paving the 6-mile (9.7 km) dirt access road connecting it to Federal Highway 2. However, it was reported in January 2017 that construction was on hold with about 1 mile (1.6 km) still consisting of a rutted dirt track.

Given this, it appears that even the modern building that I saw at the port was supplemented at a cost of $11 million five years ago. Pretty good money, considering the fact that it sits just north of a dirt road.

The port and its environs were so remote that the individuals to whom I spoke about the port indicated that the only visitors to the area were those seeking to get away from it all, and a well-known actress who would go there looking for UFOs. It would take hardy individuals just to staff the place.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) provides directions on its website to the port:

To get to Antelope Wells from El Paso, take I-10 West to Deming NM, then take exit 49 for NM-146 S towards Hachita/Antelope Wells, turn left onto NM-146, turn left onto NM-9 E, turn right on NM-81 S and proceed for 45 miles to the port of entry.

Even that is a bit misleading. Google Maps states that it takes about 96 minutes on the interstate to go from El Paso to Deming. It is another 28 minutes down I-10 to NM 146, and 19 minutes (and miles) from NM 146 to NM 9 in Hachita. And then, 45 minutes (and 45 miles) to Antelope Wells. Put another way, Antelope Wells is 45 miles through the desert to Hachita, a town that the 2010 Census showed had a population of 49. The nearby town of Playas had 74. There are no Census figures for the towns of White Place, or Wilna, on I-10 (neither has a Wikipedia page). Wikipedia describes the adjoining town of Separ as a "ghost town". In summary, this part of the country is sparse, remote, and unpopulated.

The Mexican side is not much better. Google Maps states it would take 23 hours to walk from Agua Prieta, Sonora, to Antelope Wells, and 14 hours and 27 minutes to walk from Janos, Chihuahua (the nearest town south of the port, population 2,738), to the port. Again, the Mexican side of the border is sparse, remote, and unpopulated.

Did I mention that it's almost all desert? It is worth checking out the satellite view on Google Maps.

Interestingly, I have not found any information that explains what the last point of departure was for the Caals and the other 161 migrants who found themselves in Antelope Wells at 9:15 p.m. on December 6, 2018. CNN reports that daughter and father "traveled about a week before reaching the New Mexico border." It is unclear whether that was from their home village of "Raxruhá in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala" (about 2,000 miles from Antelope Wells) or whether those individuals had been traveling on foot from some closer location. Google Maps says that it would take 654 hours (just over 27 days) of walking to make that trip, so if it had taken a week from Guatemala, the smuggler or smugglers must have provided alternative transportation.

Notwithstanding the criticism of the Trump administration noted above, CNN states that:

The father of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died after being detained by [CBP] said he has "no complaints about how Border Patrol agents treated him and his daughter," Guatemalan Consul Tekandi Paniagua told CNN on Saturday.

The consul said the father, Nery Gilberto Caal, told him agents did everything they possibly could to help his daughter, Jakelin Caal Maquin, after she became sick on a bus. The bus traveled from the Antelope Wells port of entry in New Mexico to a Border Patrol station in Lordsburg, New Mexico, about 90 minutes away.

That article goes on to state, however:

Still, his lawyers called for an investigation that "will assess this incident within nationally recognized standards for the arrest and custody of children. The family intends to assist in such an investigation into the cause and circumstances of Jakelin's death."

The lawyers, Enrique Moreno and Elena Esparza, also criticized border authorities for asking Caal to sign a form written in English about the state of his daughter's health not long after they arrived at the border, when she showed no problems.

But he speaks no English, the lawyers said. He speaks Q'eqchi', a Mayan language used in Guatemala, and Spanish is his second language.

"It is unacceptable for any government agency to have persons in custody sign documents in a language that they clearly do not understand," the statement said. [Emphasis added.]

With due respect to my brethren in the bar, the issue isn't whether a child's father signed a document that was written in English, but whether the father 1) was aware of his daughter's condition; and (2) conveyed that information to the responding officers. Border Patrol agents are trained in Caal's "second language", Spanish.

As an immigration judge, I would occasionally encounter respondents (primarily Guatemalan nationals) who stated that they spoke an indigenous language (such as Q'eqchi', which Wikipedia indicates has about 800,000 native speakers) better than they spoke Spanish, and because it was a court of law, they had the right to speak in a language they chose (within reason). In fact, I kept a map of Guatemalan dialects on my bench to help me figure out which one was likely best. One respondent before one judge presents a very different situation from 163 migrants being processed by four agents in a remote location at night, however. This is especially true if the father was unaware of the child's illness — in that situation, even if he had spoken English, it would not have made much of a difference.

There are disputed facts, however, as to what the father knew, and what he told Border Patrol, in this case.

For example, CNN quotes the lawyers for Caal's father, who have stated:

Jakelin's father took care of Jakelin — made sure she was fed and had sufficient water. ... She had not suffered from a lack of water or food prior to approaching the border.

According to the Washington Post, however:

Before reaching the border that night, Jakelin Caal had nothing to eat or drink for days, according to CBP, citing statements from her father. But though the girl's condition was worsening and her fever was soaring toward 106 degrees through the middle of the night, U.S. officials say her father did not tell agents.

"There were plenty of opportunities, if her father had noticed anything and brought it to agents' attention," said a CBP official who briefed reporters Friday, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

"There was no indication she had any health issues," the official said.

The availability of food and water is a significant issue for migrants who are in the process of crossing Mexico illegally, as I explained in a July 2018 post captioned "CBP Rescues Aliens from Smugglers: And other pictures you don't usually see". In that post, I talked about a New York Times article that had described the journey of one Christopher Cruz, a Salvadoran national, through Mexico:

The journey was uneventful from El Salvador through Guatemala, but became much more dangerous after Cruz crossed into Mexico. As the Times explained: "He was vulnerable to criminals who might try to kidnap him, police officers seeking bribes and the more robust immigration enforcement that has taken root in recent years in southern Mexico." Cruz was extorted on numerous occasions by Mexican police, hidden in smuggling vehicles, and stashed in a decrepit house in Monterey:

Far from the booming downtown, behind a metal front gate, the windows and doors were shut and barred on the cinder-block house where Mr. Cruz was kept. Trash was everywhere. The small courtyard was filled with mud and debris. Ants and cockroaches crawled indoors. The only water ran brown and unfiltered from the faucet. A terrible smell wafted from the bathroom.

"It was like a prison," Mr. Cruz said.

Migrants like Mr. Cruz had to pay their captors to bring them bottled water or snacks, if they even had the cash to pay prices that were triple those at the local convenience store. Otherwise food arrived only every other day, in the form of a carton of 30 eggs to feed the dozen or so people typically there. At night, Mr. Cruz said, he lay on a thin mat on the floor but couldn't sleep with mice and insects running over him.


Mr. Cruz was stuck there for four days. [Emphasis added.]

I would posit that it is safe to trust the New York Times when it describes the horrors of human migration, at least on the other side of the border. Assuming that the younger Caal received treatment similar to that accorded Cruz, and in light of the Mayo Clinic's explanation of the causes of sepsis above, it is no wonder that she became ill.

A separate CNN article contained the following:

On Thursday, [incoming Hispanic Caucus Chairman Rep. Joaquin] Castro issued a statement saying that he would be asking for a "full investigation by the Inspector General and Congress into the conditions and circumstances that led to (Jakelin's) death."

"We can do better as a nation," he said. "This is a humanitarian crisis and we have a moral obligation to ensure these vulnerable families can safely seek asylum, which is legal under immigration and international law at our borders."

I would concur with Castro's call for a "full investigation by the Inspector General and Congress into the conditions and circumstances that led to (Jakelin's) death." That investigation, however, should begin in the village of Raxruhá, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, and continue all the way up to Providence Hospital. It should include the name of the smuggler or smugglers who were paid to bring the Caals to the United States, and they should be extradited (assuming they are not already here) and prosecuted on any ground that could enter into the imagination of a U.S. Attorney. Not to blame a grieving parent, either, but that investigation should also involve what Caal's father did during that entire trip, what he knew, and whom he told.

I also agree with Castro that: "We can do better as a nation." I likely disagree, however, with the proposed response. I have detailed, CBP has detailed, and even U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the New York Times have detailed the dangers of alien smuggling and illegal migration. Encouraging people to enter the United States illegally is the depth of congressional malpractice.

Further, there is no indication that the Caals actually had a legitimate asylum claim. As the first CNN article reported: "Because of extreme poverty, Caal headed to the United States, taking Jakelin with him and leaving the rest of the family behind." (Emphasis added) Business Insider states:

Grandfather Domingo Caal said the family got by on $5 a day earned harvesting corn and beans. But it wasn't enough. Jakelin's father Nery Caal decided to migrate with his favorite child to earn money he could send back home. Nery often took his daughter to fish at a nearby river. The long journey north would be an even greater adventure.

Poverty, even wretched poverty, is not a basis for asylum.

It is appropriate to weep for the untimely death of a child. Turning that death into a referendum on the wisdom of the president's immigration policies, however, is ghoulish, in the truest sense of that word.