Death of seven-year-old migrant girl in US custody sparks furor

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Washington (AFP)

The death of a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl last week in the custody of US border agents sparked furor Friday and raised new pressure on the Trump administration's efforts to halt the migration of Central American families.

The Department of Homeland Security confirmed the December 8 death of the unnamed girl, saying she died in an El Paso, Texas hospital less than 24 hours after being detained as part of a group of 163 illegal border crossers in a remote New Mexico border area.

Officials said her 29-year-old father had reported she had no problems when four agents detained the group overnight December 6-7, and only said hours later while they were being transported by Border Patrol bus to that she was not breathing.

Showing an extremely high fever of 105.7 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees centigrade), the girl was flown by helicopter to a hospital in El Paso but died after several hours.

"Border Patrol agents took every possible step to save the child's life under the most trying of circumstances. As fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, we empathize with the loss of any child," said a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Border Patrol.

- Flood of migrants -

The child's death came as President Donald Trump struggles to deter a tide of migrants fleeing poverty and violence in Central America -- and battles with Congress for a budget to build a massive wall across much of the US-Mexico Frontier.

Migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have been heading northward by the tens of thousands for the past three years, with an increasing number of families with small children making the trek and hoping to gain asylum inside the United States.

White House Deputy Spokesman Hogan Gidley called the girl's death "a horrific, tragic situation" but also avoidable.

"It's a needless death and it's 100 percent preventable," he told reporters.

"If we could just come together and pass some common-sense laws to disincentivize people from coming up from the border and encourage them to do it the right way, the legal way, then those types of deaths, those types of assaults, those types of rapes, the child smuggling, the human trafficking that would all come to an end."

But Democrats in Congress assailed the administration's get-tough policies on immigrants attempting to cross the border illegally.

"This could be my daughter or yours, let that sink in America," said newly elected Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, herself a refugee from Somalia.

"This is tragic," tweeted Senator Kamala Harris.

"We need a thorough account of what happened before this 7-year-old girl died of dehydration and exhaustion in CBP custody."

- Remote border crossing -

DHS and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials insisted that officers on the ground did all they could when they became aware of the girl's situation.

She was part of a huge group that included some 50 unaccompanied minors who crossed the border at the remote Antelope Wells, New Mexico border crossing, which was closed at the time.

A CBP official said the migrants had access to water and food and were asked in Spanish if they had any health problems. The father of the girl said "no," he said.

But the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry said the man's primary language was the indigenous Mayan language Q-eqchi, suggesting he might not be fluent in Spanish.

Only as the Border Patrol was transporting them 90 miles (150 km) inland to their base in Lordsburg, New Mexico did the girl's father report she wasn't breathing.

She was flown by helicopter to a hospital in El Paso, Texas, where doctors said she was suffering from brain swelling and liver failure, and she passed away hours later, in her father's presence.

The girl's death came nearly three weeks ago after the Border Patrol backed up by the US military shut down the busy border crossing between Tijuana, Mexico and San Ysidro, California, to fend off several thousand Central Americans seeking to cross into the United States.

"We will NOT let these Caravans, which are also made up of some very bad thugs and gang members, into the U.S. Our Border is sacred, must come in legally," Trump tweeted as they approached the border.