The family of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died in U.S. Border Patrol custody is disputing the federal government’s account of the events leading to her death, saying her father had provided her with water and food during their journey through Mexico en route to the U.S. border.
The statement from the girl’s family and their El Paso, Texas, lawyers was issued Saturday at a news conference in El Paso organized by Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, a local nonprofit organization that aids and houses immigrants.
The father, Nery Caal Cuz, has been at one of Annunciation House’s shelters since Dec. 9, the day after his daughter, identified as Jakelin Caal Maquin, died at a local hospital.
“She had not suffered from a lack of water or food prior to approaching the border,” according to the statement released by Garcia. Neither the family’s lawyers nor the girl’s father attended the news conference. “Jakelin’s father took care of Jakelin – made sure she was fed and had sufficient water.”
The young girl was detained last week by Border Patrol agents after illegally crossing the southern border into the United States. She died after suffering from a high fever and seizures, according to federal immigration authorities, who said the father was ultimately at fault.
The girl was in U.S. custody for more than 11 hours after crossing into New Mexico with a group of 163 migrants, including her father. She began vomiting, was determined to have a 105.7-degree fever, and then transported by Air Ambulance to a hospital in El Paso, according to the Department of Homeland Security. She later went into cardiac arrest at Providence Children’s Hospital, but was revived before dying a short time later, according to DHS.
A Customs and Border Protection official said Friday that the girl was given a cursory, visual medical screening by agents when the group was initially detained. He said water and food were available throughout their stay, but could not confirm whether the girl had any.
The CBP official said the father signed a form indicating his daughter had no medical problems, and he only alerted Border Patrol agents when she started suffering seizures while being transported on a bus from one Border Patrol station to another.
"There were agents on the bus. The father could have brought this issue to their attention sooner," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to fully explain the details of the girl's death.
In the statement from the family’s lawyers on Saturday, they said Jakelin and her father, who speak Q’eqchi’ and do not speak English, were given federal forms to sign that were in English. They said Spanish is the family’s 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,” read the statement issued by lawyers Enrique Moreno, Elena Esparza, Lynn Coyle and Christopher Benoit.
The lawyers are asking for an “objective and thorough” investigation of the events leading up to the little girl’s death and said the family will cooperate with any inquiry. They are also awaiting an autopsy report.
"We would ask that the media and federal agencies cease further speculation about her cause of death until these (autopsy) documents are released to Jakelin's family. Premature and inaccurate statements undermine the integrity of the investigation," the statement read.
The DHS Inspector General has opened an investigation into the case to ensure that all proper steps were taken. But DHS officials made clear that such tragedies will happen when so many people make the long and dangerous trek to enter the U.S. illegally.
"It's heart-wrenching. And my heart goes out to the family," Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Friday on "Fox & Friends." "This is just a very sad example of the dangers of this journey. This family chose to cross illegally. We’ll continue to look into the situation, but again, I cannot stress enough how dangerous this journey is when migrants choose to come here illegally.”
El Paso Times reporter Vic Kolenz and USA Today reporter Alan Gomez contributed.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Family of migrant girl who died in Border Patrol custody disputes agency’s account of death