Guatemalan mother brings AOC to tears with account of harrowing conditions at border detention facilities

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent

WASHINGTON — In powerful testimony before the House Oversight Committee that brought Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to tears, Yazmin Juárez described the conditions on the U.S. border with Mexico that led to the death of her 19-month-old daughter Mariee in May 2018.

A native of Guatemala, the 21-year-old Juárez was detained by Customs and Border Protection agents in March 2018 as she sought asylum in the United States. Juárez has alleged that Mariee became sick during that detention. The little girl died of a respiratory infection several weeks later in New Jersey, where Juárez traveled after being released from custody. Her mother has since filed suit.

“The trip was dangerous,” Juárez said in the opening of her testimony. “But I was more afraid of what might have happened to us if we stayed.” She said her hopes for “a better, safer life” in the United States were dashed as she watched her “baby girl die painfully and slowly”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., listens to Yazmin Juárez testify. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The hearing was titled “Kids in Cages: Inhumane Treatment at the Border,” a reflection of what has been described as dire conditions afflicting the 50,000 migrants currently in detention for attempting to enter the United States. President Trump and his supporters blame Democrats for the influx and say that his policies are not markedly different than those of President Obama.

Legislators sat soberly as Juárez spoke, a Spanish-to-English interpreter at her side. A critic of President Trump’s immigration policy, Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., could be seen dabbing at her eyes with a napkin. Ocasio-Cortez later said that the Trump administration was fostering a “culture of cruelty” at the border.

As Juárez testified, a photo of her with Mariee as a baby was displayed in a picture frame to her right. The photo was also projected on screens in the hearing room, providing a haunting visual supplement to Juárez’s testimony.

With both emotion and precision, Juárez recounted how Mariee was healthy during the journey from Guatemala but that, after they were apprehended by Customs and Border Protection, the two were taken to a facility so cold, it was nicknamed “the icebox.” Juárez said their cell was a cage with about 30 other families. For bedding, they simply slept on the concrete floor.

Juárez and child were later taken to a center in Dilley, Texas, she said, where they were put in a room with other sick children, none of whom allegedly received proper care. At some point during the Dilley detention, Mariee became sick with a cough. She ran an dangerously high fever and began vomiting.

As Mariee’s condition grew progressively worse, Juárez was unable to get proper care for her daughter, she alleged in her testimony. She said that when she finally did see medical professionals again, they told her to give Mariee fluids and a vapor rub. At one point, U.S. authorities treated Mariee by giving her a popsicle.

Yazmin Juárez testifying at a House Oversight subcommittee hearing, July 10, 2019. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

“My baby got sicker,” Juárez continued. “She was vomiting constantly. Her fever kept going up. She wouldn’t eat or sleep. Her body was weak.” When Juárez and her daughter were released from detention, she was diagnosed with a viral infection. She languished in hospitals for several weeks before finally passing away, just a few months shy of her second birthday.

“I’m here today because I want to put an end to this,” Juárez said tearfully near the conclusion of her testimony in an apparent reference to President Trump’s policy of separating children from families, as well as the broader conditions that, critics say, have been made worse by the current administration.

And while Juárez spoke of her personal grief, Democrats made sure to place blame for it. “This graceful detention policy starts at the top. Starts with President Trump, Stephen Miller,” Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., said. He added that “we as Americans should be ashamed of what has transpired at these detention centers. And if you have not, you have lost your soul and compassion for others.”

Republicans on the committee saw things differently. In his opening statement, ranking member Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, angrily denounced his Democratic colleagues for naming the hearing “Kids in Cages,” though he first did offer Juárez his condolences. Roy, who said he had been to the border on many occasions, claimed that “to this day, I have never seen a kid in a cage the way those words seem to indicate it.” He then referenced pictures of detention facilities from the Obama administration.

Roy said that the “massive spike in apprehensions” of people crossing the border had overwhelmed facilities at the border. Roy recently blocked a disaster relief bill because it did not contain funds for handling the worsening border situation. Congress has given Trump $4.6 billion to solve the crisis.

Roy remained in attack mode even after Juárez finished testifying. In a scrum with reporters, he said that “blood is on the hands” of Democrats who had refused to recognize the severity of the problem on the border. Democrats have said that that problem has only been exacerbated by Trump.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., with Yazmin Juárez on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

After she finished her testimony, Juárez stood up and walked to the podium where legislators sit. There she was met by Ocasio-Cortez. The two women hugged and spoke briefly, surrounded by photographers and reporters.

Juárez was not the only person to testify. In the second pane of witnesses, Michael Breen, head of Human Rights First, described meeting with asylum seekers in Juárez, a Mexican city on the border with the United States. One woman, Breen told legislators, described being held with her child in a facility under a bridge in El Paso, Texas, perhaps the most notorious of the constellation of camps set up on the border.

He said a woman, who was with her partner and two children, told a guard that her 5-year-old was “too weak to stand.”

“Help me, my child is dying,” Breen said she told the guard.

“Well, are they dead yet?” the guard asked, according to what Breen says the woman told him. “Then shut up and stop crying.” The family was separated, with her mother and the sick child taken to a desert camp. The woman told Breen that guards told her that the transfer was punishment for talking to journalists.

Breen, who is a military veteran, grew emotional as he described the woman’s plight. "This is no longer just about the integrity of our borders,” he said. “This is about the integrity of our nation."

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