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From accountability to medical care, critics cry for serious reform of border agency

By Suzanne Gamboa and Daniella Silva

LORDSBURG, New Mexico — Lawmakers came to the border looking for answers for why a young girl died while in Border Patrol custody.

But it isn’t the first time answers have been demanded of Customs and Border Protection in the death of an immigrant. Or the first time much went unanswered.

The death of Jakelin Caal Maquin, who became violently ill with vomiting, fever and seizures on a Border Patrol bus before she was airlifted to a hospital after a 90-mile bus ride, follows the death of Claudia Patricia Gomez Gonzalez, 19, of Guatemala, who was shot by a Border Patrol agent. The shooting is still being investigated.

Other cases of shootings, abuse, neglect and mistreatment have been documented in various reports over the years or were the subject of media coverage. Each time there are demands for more oversight, accountability and transparency from the agency.

Groups that keep tabs say Border Patrol remains mired in outdated policing methods, while attempts at reform that began in the Obama administration have slowed and regressed.

In El Paso Monday night, Rep.-elect Veronica Escobar thanked Washington Post reporters for revealing Jakelin’s death. Without their reporting, “Jakelin’s story may never have been made known to members of Congress or to the American people,” she said.

When he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Dec. 11, four days after Jakelin died, Customs Border Commissioner Kevin McAleenan did not mention the girl’s death, even though he’s required to do so within 24 hours under a law enacted this year.

Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, called for McAleenan’s resignation on Tuesday for violating that law. He also asked when McAleenan’s boss, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen learned of the girl’s death.

With the pressure and criticism escalating, CBP on Wednesday issued an order to the agency to inform Congress and the media within 24 hours of a death of someone in its custody.

Demanding accountability

“We have seen Border Patrol and (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and CBP grow significantly over the last 15 years. What we have not seen has been growth in accountability and transparency,” Escobar said.

There have been attempts to reform the agency. Reps. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas and Steve Pearce, R-N.M., reintroduced last June a bill titled the “Border Enforcement Accountability, Oversight and Community Engagement Act.” But it hasn’t advanced.

Speaking to reporters after Jakelin’s death, O’Rourke pointed out there have been years of complaints about mistreatment by CBP officers and agents and reports of migrants’ deaths under questionable circumstances while under Border Patrol custody.

Those complaints go “into a black hole,” O’Rourke said, according to an El Paso Times transcript of his comments.

“As sensational as this story (of Jakelin’s death) is right now, this is something that has been happening for years, decades and many of us have been trying to address and correct it,” O’Rouke said. “I hope that, perhaps, now that everyone is looking at this, we get the progress and change that we need.”

For years, groups have called for Border Patrol to use body cameras. This year, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report and 30,000 pages of federal records — obtained through an open government request — documenting complaints of abuse and mistreatment, including rape and assault of unaccompanied children by agents.

In 2014, the Los Angeles Times obtained and made public details of a report by the Police Executive Research Forum regarding the Border Patrol’s use of force. The agency had tried to keep the report secret, refusing even to give a full copy to House and Senate committees.

“We need an entirely new sophisticated law enforcement approach to the border,” said Josiah Heyman, director of the Center for InterAmerican and Border Studies at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP).

Shift in migrations is ‘no surprise’

McAleenan has said that the numbers of migrants arriving on the border near Lordsburg, in a remote stretch of the southwest desert, is a “brand new phenomenon.”

In just three days, 496 people turned themselves in at Antelope Wells port of entry, McAleenan said.

When he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Dec. 11, McAleenan told the senators that CBP’s facilities were built to handle “mostly male, single adults in custody, not families or children.”

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