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World

On Both Sides Of U.S.-Mexico Border, Migrants Face Risks And Long Waits

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The family of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died while detained by U.S. border agents is disputing accounts that she had not eaten or drank for days while she made the journey into the United States. Authorities are investigating the death as the outcry mounts. Alfredo Corchado reports on immigration for the Dallas Morning News and yesterday afternoon attended a briefing about the case. He joins us now on the line from El Paso, Texas. Welcome to the program.

ALFREDO CORCHADO: Glad to be here, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the facts, as we know them, are that this little girl was picked up by border agents in a remote area while she was with her dad and other migrants. She had a long wait to get onto a bus. Then on the ride to the detention center, she vomited. She stopped breathing. She was revived. And eventually, she was flown to a hospital, where she died on December 8. What did you learn at yesterday's briefing?

CORCHADO: We learned that the father, Nery Caal, disputed the government assertions and said that his daughter Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin had not been starving, had been drinking water throughout the journey. They hadn't been walking for days, as U.S. authorities claim and that the - when they were in U.S. custody that she was perfectly healthy. She was fine. She was feeling well. But something happened during those eight hours of waiting with the Border Patrol.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because the Border Patrol had been basically maintaining that the little girl had gotten very sick because she had made this very treacherous journey north, and she hadn't eaten and drank for days - and that was the cause of why she had died.

CORCHADO: And they came out and said, you know, the father signed these forms attesting to that. But the attorneys for Caal say, look. The forms were in English. He speaks an Indigenous language and Spanish as a second language. So there was clear confusion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Critics have said that President Trump's tough immigration policies are forcing migrants into more dangerous situations on both sides of the border. Many migrants are now waiting in encampments in Mexico to get in to ask for asylum at legal crossing points. You've been to these camps. What did you find?

CORCHADO: You know, I think it's important to note that what you hear from the administration and what you hear from U.S. authorities is that, you know - please present yourself at the port of entry. But what I'm finding out, as we walk into - across the international bridge, across into Mexico, the stories that you hear on the Mexican side is that these families are being blocked from setting foot on American soil by CBP ports of entry officials. I mean, they are literally turned away and say, you know, you have to go to - talk to the Mexicans, get them to put a number on you and wait at the Mexican shelters until your number is called. The numbers range this way. I mean, it's about 60 people who are being allowed into the U.S., into - to being questioned, to being - to talk to CBP officials a day during the week and then 30 people during the weekend. So it's a long, long wait. And they're very scared that they are staying in some of the most dangerous areas along the border, which is in Tamaulipas and Ciudad Juarez.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Recent data shows that the percentage of people entering the U.S. illegally before requesting asylum actually stayed flat in 2018. The numbers of those requesting asylum at ports of entry, though, has surged. So it appears that these migrants are doing what the U.S. wants, making legal claims for asylum at ports of entry. Does this raise questions about the necessity for the administration's approach to immigration?

CORCHADO: What you hear from critics is that they need to have more lawyers, more judges on the border to expedite the system so that people can come in, you know, and that people are not being forced into these very remote areas. And, you know, when I was at the migrant shelter, I mean, I asked people, are you willing to wait? And their answer is, no, we just want to get home. We want to get to our relatives back in the United States. But it's - they are intentionally making it almost impossible to even get a meeting with U.S. officials.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News, thanks so much for speaking with us.

CORCHADO: My pleasure, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.