Kirstjen Nielsen Blames Children's Deaths in US Custody on Their Refugee Parents

After a second child died on Customs and Border Protection's watch this month, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen doubled down on previous statements casting blame on asylum-seeking parents.
DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has turned a second migrant child's death in United States custody into a cautionary tale for anyone who might try to enter the country without documentation.

In a Wednesday statement from her office, Nielsen said the child's death was the "direct result" of his parents' decision to bring him on a perilous and "illegal" journey into the US—not the result of negligence or malfeasance on the part of Customs and Border Patrol.


"This changing dynamic," Nielsen said, referring to the recent uptick in migrant children's deaths, "is the direct result of obvious draw factors: an immigration system that rewards parents for sending their children across the border alone, a system that prevents parents who bring their children on a dangerous and illegal journey from facing consequences for their actions, an asylum process that is not able to quickly help those who qualify for asylum, a system that encourages fraudulent claims, and a system that encourages bad actors to coach aliens into making frivolous claims."

She continued, "The bottom line is that nine out 10 asylum claims are rejected by a federal immigration judge."

Nielsen went on to extend blame to those arguing for "open borders" and migrants who enter the country with existing illnesses.

"It has been more than a decade since CBP has had a child pass away in their custody," she said. "It is now clear that migrants, particularly children, are increasingly facing medical challenges and harboring illness caused by their long and dangerous journey."

In the past month, CBP has had two children die on its watch. The most recent death occurred on Christmas Eve, when Felipe Gomez Alonso, an eight-year-old Guatemalan boy, passed away after being prescribed antibiotics to treat the common cold and a fever. At the time of his passing, he'd been readmitted to the hospital and had been vomiting, but CBP says the cause of his death remains unknown.


Before Felipe, a seven-year-old girl named Jakelin Caal Maquin, also from Guatemala, died on December 8 due to dehydration and septic shock, spurring similar comments from Nielsen.

“This family chose to cross illegally. What happened here is they were about 90 miles away from where we could process them,” Nielsen told Fox and Friends hosts earlier this month. “We’ll continue to look into the situation, but, again, I cannot stress [enough] how dangerous this journey is when migrants choose to come here illegally.”

On Wednesday, Nielsen said she'd asked The Centers for Disease Control, the US Coast Guard Medical Corps, and the Department of Defense for guidance and resources on how to address the growing number of children who've grown sick in CBP custody. For those who remain appalled at the deaths, these initiatives fall short of getting to the root problem of what Texas Representative Joaquín Castro has called "systemic failures" at CBP and DHS.

Castro, the incoming chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, has called for a congressional investigation into the deaths and other representatives as well as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have followed suit.

"Democrats call on Homeland Security’s Inspector General to immediately open an investigation into Felipe Alzono-Gomez’s death,” Pelosi said in a statement, according to NBC News. “The Congress will also investigate this tragedy and the heartbreaking death of Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin, to seek justice and ensure that no other child is left to such a fate.”

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Others, like California Representative Lou Corea, worry that an agency whose leadership views migrants presenting themselves for asylum—as is their right, according to federal and international law—as unlawful intruders may never be able to adequately address such problems.

"CBP and Border Patrol have not figured out that this a refugee and humanitarian crisis," he told NPR Wednesday. "They're still stuck in a mentality of zero tolerance and deterrence, when, in reality, what you have are families fleeing violence who need doctors and social services."