House Democratic leaders are demanding that the Department of Homeland Security investigate the medical care that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials gave an 18-month-old Guatemalan girl who died earlier this year after leaving a Texas family detention for immigrants. And if the Trump administration doesn’t take action, Democrats might do their own investigating once they take over the House in January.
In a letter sent Friday, Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, and New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler asked the DHS’ Office of the Inspector General to open an investigation into the medical care the toddler, named Mariee, received while in the facility, which is operated by ICE. Thompson, Cummings, and Nadler are the ranking members, respectively, of the House Committee on Homeland Security, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and the House Judiciary Committee.
“It is about this particular case and about the treatment, but also the conditions that would give rise to illnesses in other children,” said Castro, who also led a September letter, signed by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, asking DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to investigate Mariee’s death.
The DHS Office of the Inspector General has opened an investigation into Mariee’s case, Tanya Alridge, a spokesperson for the office, confirmed to VICE News. Alridge was not able to provide any further information about the investigation, or if it was opened in response to Democrats’ Friday letter.
“On so many of these issues, we’ve basically been blown off by the Trump administration. And DHS finally responded in the last few days to a letter that we wrote months ago and their letter didn’t answer many of the questions,” Castro said. If Castro doesn’t get those answers, he said, he hopes Congress will open an investigation into Mariee’s death.
“Congress has a role to play in strong oversight,” he added, “and making sure that these detention facilities are safe for the people being kept there, that the conditions are human, that there isn’t corruption in the contracting or excessive profiteering, all of these issues.”
An August VICE News investigation found that Mariee and her mother, Yazmin Juárez, arrived at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, on March 5. The pair had fled violence in Guatemala and hoped to secure asylum in the United States. At the time of her arrival, Mariee was healthy; one week later, she started vomiting and developed a severe fever, congestion, and diarrhea.
Mariee’s condition initially improved, but worsened again before Juárez and Mariee left the detention center on March 25. Hours after a visit to a New Jersey pediatrician, who told Juárez that Mariee should go to the emergency room if her breathing got more labored, Mariee was admitted to a hospital on March 26.
On May 10, after being transferred to two more hospitals, Mariee died.
Five pediatricians reviewed Mariee’s symptoms, vital signs, and doctors’ notes, as described in ICE medical records, for VICE News. They concluded that ICE’s treatment of Mariee was consistent with the treatment they would prescribe for a toddler in similar circumstances. However, doctors have cautioned for years that detention centers like the one in Dilley are often unhealthy for children: Sick kids can struggle to recover, thanks to the facilities’ stress-inducing, prison-like conditions, while respiratory infections flourish in crowded, confined spaces.
“You're adding this terrible level of psycho-social stress on kids, that could also impair their immune system, making them more susceptible to viruses and bacteria,” Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told VICE News in August.
At that time, ICE declined to comment on Mariee’s case specifically. In an email, an agency spokesperson told VICE News, “ICE is committed to ensuring the welfare of all those in the agency’s custody, including providing access to necessary and appropriate medical care. Comprehensive medical care is provided to all individuals in ICE custody.”
In late November, Juárez filed a legal claim against the U.S. government, seeking $60 million for her daughter’s wrongful death.
Cover: Undated photos of Mairee and her mother, Jasmín Juaréz.