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House leader criticizes Trump administration investigations into deaths of migrant children

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Government watchdogs failed to conduct thorough investigations into the deaths of two migrant children in the El Paso area in 2018 and gave a false cause of death in its public report on one of the children, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee said Thursday.

“While the Border Patrol agents who cared for both children exhibited great concern for their well-being, the job of the (Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General) after such deaths is to conduct a thorough review of all of the facts and circumstances surrounding the deaths and to determine whether agency policy should be revised in any way to help ensure that such deaths do not happen again. The reports of investigation produced by the OIG did not fulfill either responsibility,” committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said in an 11-page letter to Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Joseph Cuffari.

The letter concerns the inspector general investigation into the December deaths of Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7, on Dec. 8 in El Paso, and Felipe Gómez Alonzo, 8, on Dec. 24 in Alamogordo. The two Guatemalan children died in Border Patrol custody.

Thompson’s letter focuses mostly on the inspector general’s investigation into the death of Felipe, who died six days after he and his father were taken into custody in El Paso. The letter said the inspector general’s one-page public report on the investigation “excludes such crucial details that the information it provides is inaccurate and misleading.”

The DHS inspector general didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The OIG report on Felipe’s death said the “autopsy report found the child died from sepsis caused by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria” when the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator said the cause of death was complications of influenza B infection.

“Despite the fact that the child was diagnosed with Influenza B and the cause of the child’s death included complications of Influenza B, there is no mention of Influenza B in the public summary of the OIG’s investigation of the child’s death,” Thompson wrote.

The Washington Post asked the inspector general about the inaccurate cause of death in December but got no response.

At least two other migrant children died of flu complications while in Border Patrol custody in the spring of 2019, autopsy reports showed.

Thompson’s letter said the inspector general did not adequately investigate Felipe’s medical care while in custody, including whether Border Patrol agents were notified that he had been diagnosed with the flu.

The committee chairman also faulted the inspector general for not investigating whether the Border Patrol had adequate policies for protecting the health of detained migrant children.

“In the case of the 8-year-old child, the risks associated with keeping a child with an infectious condition in close proximity to other individuals in CBP custody may have been more than theoretical. Evidence in the (inspector general’s report that hasn’t been made public) suggests that a child held in the same cell as the 8-yearold was transported to the hospital the next day and diagnosed with a cold. The child recovered,” Thompson wrote.

The letter also criticized the inspector general for using personnel from Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Professional Responsibility to investigate Felipe’s death, and not disclosing that in its public report.

“This situation raises numerous concerns about the independence of the OIG’s investigation, as well as about the level of staffing of the Inspector General’s office and about the process for deciding to allow staff of an agency under review to participate in the Inspector General’s review of the agency,” Thompson said.   

His letter asked Cuffari to respond by April 9 to six questions about the investigations into the deaths of Jakelin and Felipe.

The inspector general is an independent office in federal agencies that is supposed to provide oversight of activities, ensure compliance with policies, investigate allegations of wrongdoing and recommend policy changes to strengthen performance.

The DHS inspector general is responsible for reviewing the Trump administration’s border enforcement policies, including detention practices, family separation and processing of asylum seekers.

The Washington Post recently reported that the DHS inspector general was on pace to produce 40 audit reports in fiscal year 2020, the lowest number since the office’s first year of operation in 2003. Cuffari also has been criticized by Thompson and other congressional leaders for failing to testify before congressional committees.

In a separate letter on Thursday, Democratic Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, criticized Cuffari’s leadership of the DHS inspector general’s office and for delays of crucial reports.

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Robert Moore

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986. He spent most of his career at the El Paso Times, serving in a variety of leadership roles. His work has received a number of top journalism honors including Pulitzer Prize finalist, the Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership, the James Madison Award from the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, the Jack Douglas Award from Texas Associated Press Managing Editors and the Frank W. Mayborn Award for Community Leadership from the Texas Press Association. In 2013, he was the recipient of the Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year Award from the National Press Association. As a freelance journalist, Moore’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Texas Monthly, ProPublica, National Public Radio, The Guardian and other publications. He has been featured as an expert on the border by CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CBC and PBS.

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