When Jakelin Caal, the 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died in U.S. custody this month, arrived at the southern border she was with more than 160 other migrants. There were only three or four four Border Patrol agents to meet them all at the remote outpost in Antelope Wells, New Mexico.
None of the agents had the medical training necessary to treat Caal when she began inexplicably vomiting. The closest such agents were a 90-minute drive away. Caal’s father claims they weren’t even offered water. She died the next day.
Within a week, Antelope Wells had processed at least another 350 migrants—a shocking number for a port of entry that recently stopped counting vehicle traffic through the crossing because it was so low.
While the cause of Caal’s death remains unclear, her journey is indicative of a growing trend of migrant families traveling to the border in large groups, and encountering long lines at ports of entry.
Government lawyers predicted that President Trump’s November executive order changing rules for asylum-seekers would result in an additional 70,000 migrants ending up at ports of entry like Antelope Wells. The surge would require additional resources to process those claims, they said, but more than a month later those resources haven’t been provided, according to observers.
The government even said it would prefer the disaster it has on its hands.
“The Departments acknowledge that in the event all of the approximately 70,000 aliens per year... decide to present at a port of entry, processing times at ports of entry would be slower in the absence of additional resources or policies that would encourage aliens to enter at less busy ports. The Departments nonetheless believe such a policy would be preferable to the status quo,” lawyers wrote.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) blasted the policies that have led to chaos at ports of entry.
“We should stop focusing our resources on inflicting cruelty on families and children, and instead focus on making sure that we have a system in place that treats individuals fleeing persecution with dignity, and prevents tragedies like the death of Jakelin Caal,” Merkley told The Daily Beast in a statement.
Merkley introduced legislation in October that would create a $100 million emergency fund to help DHS and non-governmental organizations process and transport immigrant families during surges at the border, as well as provide funding to help process asylum claims.
Meanwhile, families are being turned away from ports of entry in San Diego and El Paso, forced to sleep on the streets or in camps on the Mexican side of the border while they wait for a chance to apply for asylum.
“The practice today is that they’re rejected before they can ever step foot in the United States,” Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) said last week while visiting migrants in Juarez who had been turned away from applying for asylum. “And sometimes, there’s the incentive created by rejecting them at the port of entry to try to cross in between ports of entry or in more inhospitable stretches of the US-Mexico border.”
Not everyone is content with waiting. Migrants are apparently choosing smaller and less crowded ports of entry like Antelope Wells, according to a spokesperson for Caal’s family.
“What [Caal’s journey] is telling me is that the policy of pushing people back to Juarez… is that they’re going further and further out and that is dangerous,” Ruben Garcia, an El Paso migrant advocate, said in a recent press conference. “It is endangering the lives and welfare of families and obviously of children, and that is very, very disconcerting.”
In the past two months, immigration authorities in the El Paso Sector, which includes Antelope Wells, apprehended more migrant families than in all of fiscal year 2017.
That year, authorities apprehended 8,609 migrant families in the region. So far this fiscal year, the same authorities apprehended 11,617 family units, defined by DHS as at least one child under 18 accompanied by a single family member.
Across the entire border more than 50,000 migrant families have been apprehended since October, an increase of more than 300 percent compared to the same period last year, according to DHS.
—Additional reporting by Scott Bixby.