U.S. Customs and Border Protection will promptly report the death of anyone in its custody to members of Congress and the media under interim guidelines issued this week amid criticism of the agency for not publicly disclosing the Dec. 8 death of 7-year-old Jakelin Caal.
The guidelines, published on the agency’s website Tuesday, require CBP to inform lawmakers within 24 hours of a death in CBP custody, and to issue media statements an hour after that. Notifications will also be issued to nongovernmental organizations that work with migrants and others.
“To secure and maintain the public trust, CBP’s intent is to be accessible and transparent by providing appropriate information to the Congress and the public regarding any death occurring in custody,” the agency said.
Caal’s death at an El Paso pediatric hospital was first reported by The Washington Post on Dec. 13, five days after the child died of dehydration, shock and liver failure, according to CBP statements.
Two days earlier, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan did not mention the incident during testimony during an oversight hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee. In a subsequent letter to appropriators, McAleenan cited privacy issues and a concern that the girl’s death would be politicized.
After a delegation of Democratic lawmakers visited the New Mexico border crossing and Border Patrol station Tuesday with McAleenan, retracing Caal’s journey, House Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, called for McAleenan’s resignation, saying he violated the law by not informing Congress within 24 hours.
Language in the 2018 House appropriations report directed CBP to tell lawmakers about any deaths within that time frame, but the agency did not have a statutory requirement and had not formalized the policy until the interim guidelines this week in the wake of Caal’s death.
The new guidelines direct CBP officials to notify the secretary and deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security within 12 hours of any death in CBP custody, and to alert the Department of State and CBP attaches assigned to the country of the decedent.
Separate procedures continue to apply in instances involving the use of lethal force by a CBP agent or officer, the guidelines indicate.
DHS’s Office of Inspector General has opened an investigation into Caal’s death. Castro and other Democrats said Tuesday that they intend to launch an inquiry as well, citing “systematic failures in how the young girl’s condition was handled,” including a lack of medical personnel and equipment.
Caal and her father entered the United States at night Dec. 6 as part of a group 163 migrants, many of them families with children. The group arrived at a remote New Mexico border outpost where only four U.S. border agents were on duty. The post had no medical staff.
Homeland Security officials insist that agents did everything possible to save the child once her father alerted them to her illness. Full autopsy results are not expect for several weeks.
The Washington Post’s Jacqueline Alemany contributed to this report.