The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is asking the Office of the Inspector General to investigate the case of 18-month-old Mariee, a Guatemalan girl who died after leaving an immigration family detention center in Texas earlier this year.
In a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Wednesday, 17 members of Congress led by Texas Democrat Joaquin Castro asked the department to direct investigators to determine if the detention center gave Mariee the necessary medical treatment, and whether healthcare for kids in detention can be improved.
“It is critical that conditions improve in these centers so that a case like Mariee’s never happens again,” the letter reads.
A VICE News investigation found that Mariee arrived healthy at the center in Dilley, Texas, on March 5 with her mother, Yazmin Juárez, after the two fled violence in Guatemala and came to the U.S. seeking asylum. Mariee developed a severe fever, congestion, diarrhea and vomiting one week into her stay. She briefly improved, but fell ill again before leaving detention with Juárez on March 25. Juárez took Mariee to a pediatrician in New Jersey the next day, who sent her home with medicine and told her to take Mariee to the emergency room if her breathing got worse. It did, just hours later, and Mariee was admitted to a hospital on March 26. Doctors transferred her to two other hospitals for more serious treatments, until she died at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia on May 10.
Five pediatricians who reviewed Mariee’s vital signs and symptoms as reflected in her ICE medical records obtained by VICE News said the treatment she received from the Dilley medical staff was reasonable given her condition at the time. But, they said respiratory infections spread more easily in detention centers, and the stress and crowdedness of confinement can make it harder for sick kids like Mariee to recover.
At a July 25 meeting with the Hispanic Caucus, Nielsen reassured members that no children had died or become seriously ill in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. “She either lied to me or was incompetent in not understanding that children were being placed in serious danger,” congressman Castro said.
In the Wednesday letter, The Hispanic Caucus is reiterating its request that the government find alternatives to detention for immigrant families. “It is indefensible that when these young children arrive in our country, they are forced in settings that increase disease transmission and that the stress and anxiety they have experienced in their journey will likely exacerbate any illness or mental health condition,” their letter reads.
Medical experts and immigration advocates have long raised concerns about the health consequences of detaining children. Two doctors contracted by the Department of Homeland Security to investigate family detention centers over the last four years flagged a host of serious problems earlier this year and called the practice of family detention “an exploitation and an assault on the dignity and health of children and families.”
Lawyers for Juárez have taken legal action against the city of Eloy, Arizona, which oversees the contract for the Dilley facility. They are asking for $40 million in a wrongful death claim.
Read the full letter: