Houston, Dec 27 (AP/UNB) — The deaths of two migrant children in just over two weeks raised strong new doubts Wednesday about the ability of U.S. border authorities to care for the thousands of minors arriving as part of a surge of families trying to enter the country.
An 8-year-old boy identified by Guatemalan officials as Felipe Gomez Alonzo died in U.S. custody at a New Mexico hospital on Christmas Eve after suffering a cough, vomiting and fever, authorities said. The cause is under investigation, as is the death Dec. 8 of another Guatemalan child, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal.
"There is a real failure here that we all need to reckon with," said incoming Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat elected last month to represent El Paso in Congress. "We need to know how many other Jakelins and Felipes there have been."
The U.S. government's system for detaining migrants crossing the border is severely overtaxed. Authorities would not say how many children U.S. Customs and Border Protection is now holding. But the country is seeing a sharp rise in families with children.
In the wake of the two deaths, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen asked the Coast Guard to study CBP's medical programs and announced that all children who enter the agency's custody will be given "more thorough" assessments.
Also, border authorities said that they conducted health checks in reaction to Felipe's death on nearly all children in their custody. They did not disclose the results.
Nielsen blamed "a system that prevents parents who bring their children on a dangerous illegal journey from facing consequences for their actions." The Trump administration contends it must detain more people to discourage other Central American families from trying to enter the country.
Felipe had been detained by U.S. border authorities for a week and moved between facilities with his father, officials said. The last place the boy was held — after the first of two visits to the hospital on the day he died — was a highway checkpoint in New Mexico.
Felipe's father, Agustin Gomez, did not see any signs of illness from his son until Monday, according to Guatemalan consul Oscar Padilla, who spoke to Gomez on Wednesday. Felipe and his father had left Guatemala on Dec. 14 and were detained at the U.S-Mexico border four days later, Padilla told The Associated Press.
By its own regulations, CBP is supposed to detain people for no more than 72 hours before turning them over to other government agencies responsible for long-term detention. CBP facilities are typically spartan, with food, water and blankets but often no medical professionals, teachers or some of the other resources longer-term detention centers offer.
Similarly, Jakelin was first held with her father at a small base in rural New Mexico that did not have running water, according to Democrats who visited it after the girl's death.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat who sits on a key subcommittee overseeing border funding, said he has pushed to fund more alternatives to detention such as ankle monitors, which he said could have been issued to Felipe's father.
He said the Trump administration has prioritized the president's border wall — the subject of the partial government shutdown since last week — over investing in CBP checkpoints that have long needed attention.
"They're not set up to hold people for a long time," Cuellar said. "There's so much money that the wall sucks up that it's hard to address some of the other issues. I wish the administration would understand that."
CBP said it is reviewing all available options to relieve overcrowding in the El Paso sector, where Felipe and his father were apprehended. The agency also said it has reached out to other government agencies for "surge medical assistance."
CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said in the agency's defense that CBP has more than 1,500 emergency medical technicians on staff and that officers are taking dozens of sick children to hospitals every day.
"This is an extraordinarily rare occurrence," McAleenan told "CBS This Morning" of the two child deaths. "It's been more than a decade since we've had a child pass away anywhere in a CBP process, so this is just devastating for us."
It's not uncommon for families in El Paso these days to spend more than a week in holding cells just as Felipe and his father did, said Ruben Garcia, director of El Paso's Annunciation House shelter.
Those problems predate the Trump administration. During a 2014 surge at the border, some families were put in holding cells for up to 20 days before being released, Garcia said.
Homeland Security's inspector general examined nine CBP holding facilities earlier this year. In a September report, the inspector general said that the facilities complied with CBP standards and that people had access to food and water, toilets and sinks, and hygiene items — with "the exception of inconsistent cleanliness of the hold rooms."
Just three of the nine facilities had "trained medical staff to conduct medical screening and provide basic medical care," the report said. And showers were available for unaccompanied children at only four facilities.
Felipe and his father were taken to two of the facilities the inspector general examined: the processing center at the Paso del Norte port of entry, then the El Paso Border Patrol station.
But just after 1 a.m. Sunday, the two were transferred 90 miles (145 kilometers) to the Border Patrol station at Alamogordo, New Mexico. CBP said it moved them "because of capacity levels" in El Paso. The next day, a border agent noticed Felipe was coughing and had "glossy eyes," and sent him to the hospital, the CBP said.
"I can't think of any logical reason that would happen, for the most vulnerable of children to be sent to a remote area," Escobar said.
According to CBP statistics, border agents detained 5,283 children unaccompanied by a parent in November alone. Agents last month also apprehended 25,172 "family units," or parents and children together. Both figures are highs for this year.
Children who arrive unaccompanied by a parent are supposed to go to longer-term facilities operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But HHS' system is also strained. The Associated Press reported this month that 14,300 children were being detained by HHS, most in facilities with more than 100 kids.
Iraq, Dec 27 (AP/UNB) — In an unannounced trip to Iraq on Wednesday, President Donald Trump staunchly defended his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from neighboring Syria despite a drumbeat of criticism from military officials and allies who don't think the job fighting Islamic State militants there is over.
Trump, making his first presidential visit to troops in a troubled region, said it's because the U.S. military had all but eliminated IS-controlled territory in both Iraq and Syria that he decided to withdraw 2,000 forces from Syria. He said the decision to leave Syria showed America's renewed stature on the world stage and his quest to put "America first."
"We're no longer the suckers, folks," Trump told U.S. servicemen and women at al-Asad Airbase in western Iraq, about 100 miles or 60 kilometers west of Baghdad. "We're respected again as a nation."
The decision to pull U.S. forces from Syria, however, stunned national security advisers and U.S. allies and prompted the resignations of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who was not on the trip, and the U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic extremist group. The militant group, also known as ISIS, has lost nearly all its territory in Iraq and Syria but is still seen as a threat.
Iraq declared IS defeated within its borders in December 2017, but Trump's trip was shrouded in secrecy, which has been standard practice for presidents flying into conflict areas.
Air Force One, lights out and window shutters drawn, flew overnight from Washington, landing at an airbase west of Baghdad in darkness Wednesday evening. George W. Bush made four trips to Iraq as president and President Barack Obama made one.
During his three-plus hours on the ground, Trump did not meet with any Iraqi officials, but spoke on the phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. He stopped at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany on his way back, for a second unannounced visit to troops and military leaders.
Trump's Iraq visit appeared to have inflamed sensitivities about the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq. The two major blocs in the Iraqi parliament both condemned the visit, likening it to a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.
The airbase where Trump spoke is about 155 miles (250 km) from Hajin, a Syrian town near the Iraqi border where Kurdish fighters are still battling IS extremists. Trump has said IS militants have been eradicated, but the latest estimate is that IS still holds about 60 square miles (100 square km) of territory in that region of Syria, although fighters also fled the area and are in hiding in other pockets of the country.
Mattis was supposed to continue leading the Pentagon until late February but Trump moved up his exit and announced that Patrick Shanahan, deputy defense secretary, would take the job on Jan. 1 and he was in "no rush" to nominate a new defense chief.
"Everybody and his uncle wants that position," Trump told reporters traveling with him in Iraq. "And also, by the way, everybody and her aunt, just so I won't be criticized."
Critics said the U.S. exit from Syria, the latest in Trump's increasingly isolationist-style foreign policy, would provide an opening for IS to regroup, give Iran a green light to expand its influence in the region and leave U.S.-backed Kurdish forces vulnerable to attacks from Turkey.
"I made it clear from the beginning that our mission in Syria was to strip ISIS of its military strongholds," said Trump, who wore an olive green bomber style jacket as he was welcomed by chants of "USA! USA!" and speakers blaring Lee Greenwood's song, "God Bless the USA."
"We'll be watching ISIS very closely," said Trump, who was joined by first lady Melania Trump, but no members of his Cabinet or lawmakers. "We'll be watching them very, very closely, the remnants of ISIS"
Trump also said he had no plans to withdraw the 5,200 U.S. forces in Iraq. That's down from about 170,000 in 2007 at the height of the surge of U.S. forces to combat sectarian violence unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion to topple dictator Saddam Hussein.
Trump spoke on the phone with the prime minister, but the White House said security concerns and the short notice of the trip prevented the president from meeting him face-to-face.
The prime minister's office said "differences in points of view over the arrangements" prevented the two from meeting but they discussed security issues and Trump's order to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria over the phone. Abdul-Mahdi's office also did not say whether he had accepted an invitation to the White House. But Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on the flight back that the Iraqi leader had agreed to come.
Trump said that after U.S. troops in Syria return home, Iraq could still be used to stage attacks on IS militants.
"We can use this as a base if we wanted to do something in Syria," he said. "If we see something happening with ISIS that we don't like, we can hit them so fast and so hard" that they "really won't know what the hell happened."
Trump said it's time to leave Syria because the U.S. should not be involved in nation-building, and that other wealthy nations should shoulder the cost of rebuilding Syria. He also said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has agreed to battle "any remnants of ISIS" in Syria, which shares a border with Turkey.
"The nations of the regions must step up and take more responsibility for their future," Trump said, promising a "strong deliberate and orderly withdrawal" of forces from Syria
Trump had faced criticism for not yet visiting U.S. troops stationed in harm's way as he comes up on his two-year mark in office. He told The Associated Press in October that he "will do that at some point, but I don't think it's overly necessary.
Trump told reporters that he had planned to make the trip three or four weeks ago, but word of the trip started getting out and forced him to postpone it.
Iraqi leaders declared an end to combat operations against IS a year ago but the country's political, military and economic situation remains uncertain. It continues to experience sporadic bombings, kidnappings and assassinations, which most people attribute to IS.
On Dec. 15, the U.S.-led coalition launched an airstrike in support of Iraqi troops who were chasing IS fighters toward a tunnel west of Mosul. The strike destroyed the tunnel entrance and killed four IS fighters, according to the U.S. military in Baghdad. The last U.S. service member to die in Iraq was in August, as the result of a helicopter crash in Sinjar.
Trump had planned to spend Christmas at his private club in Florida, but stayed behind in Washington due to the partial government shutdown.
Trump campaigned for office on a platform of ending U.S. involvement in foreign trouble spots, such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The Pentagon is also said to be developing plans to withdraw up to half of the 14,000 American troops still serving in Afghanistan.
Washington, Dec 26 (AP/UNB) — Christmas has come and gone but the partial government shutdown is just getting started.
Wednesday brings the first full business day after several government departments and agencies closed up over the weekend due to a budgetary stalemate between President Donald Trump and Congress. And there is no end in sight.
So far, the public and federal workers have largely been spared inconvenience and hardship because government is closed on weekends and federal employees were excused from work on Christmas Eve and Christmas, a federal holiday. The shutdown began at midnight last Friday.
Trump said Tuesday that the closed parts of the government will remain that way until Democrats agree to wall off the U.S.-Mexico border to deter criminal elements. He said he's open to calling the wall something else as long as he ends up with an actual wall.
Asked when the government would reopen fully, Trump said he couldn't say.
"I can't tell you when the government's going to be open. I can tell you it's not going to be open until we have a wall or fence, whatever they'd like to call it," Trump said, referring to Democrats who staunchly oppose walling off the border.
"I'll call it whatever they want, but it's all the same thing," he told reporters after participating in a holiday video conference with representatives from all five branches of the military stationed in Alaska, Bahrain, Guam and Qatar.
Trump argued that drug flows and human trafficking can only be stopped by a wall.
"We can't do it without a barrier. We can't do it without a wall," he said. "The only way you're going to do it is to have a physical barrier, meaning a wall. And if you don't have that then we're just not opening" the government.
Democrats oppose spending money on a wall, preferring instead to pump the dollars into fencing, technology and other means of controlling access to the border. Trump argued that Democrats oppose a wall only because he is for one.
The stalemate over how much to spend and how to spend it caused the partial government shutdown that began Saturday following a lapse in funding for departments and agencies that make up about 25 percent of the government.
Some 800,000 government workers are affected. Many are on the job but must wait until after the shutdown to be paid again.
Trump claimed that many of these workers "have said to me and communicated, 'stay out until you get the funding for the wall.' These federal workers want the wall. The only one that doesn't want the wall are the Democrats."
Trump didn't say how he's hearing from federal workers, excluding those he appointed to their jobs or who work with him in the White House. But many rank-and-file workers have gone to social media with stories of the financial hardship they expect to face because of the shutdown.
Houston, Dec 26 (AP/UNB) — An 8-year-old boy from Guatemala died in government custody in New Mexico early Tuesday, U.S. immigration authorities said, marking the second death of an immigrant child in detention this month.
The death came during an ongoing dispute over border security and with a partial government shutdown underway over President Donald Trump's request for border wall funding.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the boy — identified by the Guatemalan consul in Phoenix as Felipe Gómez Alonzo — had shown "signs of potential illness" on Monday and was taken with his father to a hospital in Alamogordo, New Mexico. He was diagnosed with a cold and a fever, prescribed amoxicillin and ibuprofen, and released Monday afternoon after being held 90 minutes for observation, the agency said.
The boy was returned to the hospital Monday evening with nausea and vomiting and died there just after midnight, CBP said.
CBP has not yet confirmed when or where the father and son entered the United States or how long they were detained, saying only in its statement that the boy had been "previously apprehended" by its agents.
The agency said the cause of the boy's death has not been determined and that it has notified the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general and the Guatemalan government.
A 7-year-old Guatemalan girl died earlier this month after being apprehended by border agents in New Mexico. The body of the girl, Jakelin Caal, was returned to her family's remote village Monday for burial Tuesday.
The White House referred questions about the latest case to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, CBP's parent agency. CBP officers and the Border Patrol remain on the job despite the shutdown.
According to Guatemala's foreign ministry, the father and son entered the U.S. at El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 18, then were taken to the Border Patrol's Alamogordo station Sunday. Alamogordo is about 90 miles (145 kilometers) from El Paso.
Oscar Padilla, the Guatemalan consul in Phoenix, said he was told by the boy's father in a telephone interview that the two had been traveling from their home in Nentón, a village about 280 miles (450 kilometers) from Guatemala City. They were planning to go to Johnson City, Tennessee.
The consul identified the father as 47-year-old Agustin Gomez, and said he remains in U.S. Border Patrol custody.
CBP typically detains immigrants for no more than a few days when they cross the border before either releasing them or turning them over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for longer-term detention. Agency guidelines say immigrants generally shouldn't be detained for more than 72 hours in CBP holding facilities, which are usually smaller and have fewer services than ICE's detention centers.
Parents and children together are almost always released quickly due to limited space in ICE's family detention facilities.
A CBP spokesman on Tuesday did not respond to questions about the ministry's statement.
The hospital, the Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center, declined to comment, citing privacy regulations.
CBP promised "an independent and thorough review of the circumstances."
The Guatemalan foreign ministry called for an investigation "in accordance with due process."
Democratic members of Congress and immigration advocates sharply criticized CBP's handling of Jakelin's death and questioned whether border agents could have prevented it by spotting symptoms of distress or calling for an evacuation by air ambulance sooner.
CBP has said that it took several hours to transport Jakelin and her father from a remote Border Patrol facility to a larger station, where her temperature was measured at 105.7 degrees Fahrenheit (40.9 degrees Celsius). Emergency medical technicians had to revive her twice. She was ultimately flown to an El Paso hospital, where she died the next day.
Large numbers of Guatemalan families have been arriving in recent weeks in New Mexico, often in remote and dangerous parts of the desert. Jakelin and her father were with 161 other people when they were apprehended in Antelope Wells, about 230 miles (370 kilometers) southwest of Alamogordo.
CBP announced new notification procedures in response to Jakelin's death, which was not revealed until several days later.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican whose district along the U.S.-Mexico border includes Alamogordo, did not respond to messages Tuesday.
Xochitl Torres Small, a Democrat who will represent the district starting in January, called for a thorough and transparent investigation into the children's deaths and more medical resources along the border.
"This is inexcusable," she said in a statement Tuesday. "Instead of immediately acting to keep children and all of us safe along our border, this administration forced a government shutdown over a wall."
Felipe Gonzalez, the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, said Monday that the U.S. government's detention of children due to their immigration status violated international law.
Washington, Dec 25 (AP/UNB) — A federal judge on Monday ordered North Korea to pay more than $500 million in a wrongful death suit filed by the parents of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died shortly after being released from that country.
U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell harshly condemned North Korea for "barbaric mistreatment" of Warmbier in agreeing with his family that the isolated nation should be held liable for his death last year. She awarded punitive damages and payments covering medical expenses, economic loss and pain and suffering to Fred and Cindy Warmbier, who alleged that their son had been held hostage and tortured.
Warmbier was a University of Virginia student who was visiting North Korea with a tour group when he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016 on suspicion of stealing a propaganda poster. He died in June 2017, shortly after he returned to the U.S. in a coma and showing apparent signs of torture while in custody.
In holding North Korean responsible, Howell said the government had seized Warmbier for "use as a pawn in that totalitarian state's global shenanigans and face-off with the United States."
"Before Otto traveled with a tour group on a five-day trip to North Korea, he was a healthy, athletic student of economics and business in his junior year at the University of Virginia, with 'big dreams' and both the smarts and people skills to make him his high school class salutatorian, homecoming king, and prom king," the judge wrote. "He was blind, deaf, and brain dead when North Korea turned him over to U.S. government officials for his final trip home."
The arrest and death of Warmbier came during a time of heightened tension between the U.S. and North Korea over the country's nuclear weapons program. President Donald Trump held a first-of-its-kind summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June 2018 and plans another next year.
The judgment may be mostly a symbolic victory since North Korea has yet to respond to any of the allegations in court and there's no practical mechanism to force it do so. But the family may nonetheless be able to recoup damages through a Justice Department-administered fund for victims of state-sponsored acts of terrorism, and may look to seize other assets held by the country outside of North Korea.
Fred and Cindy Warmbier, who are from a suburb of Cincinnati, said they were thankful the court found the government of Kim Jong Un "legally and morally" responsible for their son's death.
"We put ourselves and our family through the ordeal of a lawsuit and public trial because we promised Otto that we will never rest until we have justice for him," they said in a statement. "Today's thoughtful opinion by Chief Judge Howell is a significant step on our journey."
The lawsuit, filed in April, describes in horrific detail the physical abuse Warmbier endured in North Korean custody, recounting how his parents were "stunned to see his condition" when they boarded a plane to see him upon arrival in the U.S.
The 22-year-old was blind and deaf, his arms were curled and mangled and he was jerking violently and howling, completely unresponsive to his family's attempts to comfort him. His once straight teeth were misaligned, and he had an unexplained scar on his foot. An expert said the injuries suggested he'd been tortured with electric shock, and a neurologist later concluded that the college student suffered brain damage, probably from a loss of blood flow to the brain for five to 20 minutes.
North Korea has denied Warmbier was tortured and has said he contracted botulism, though medical experts said there was no evidence of that.
The complaint also said Warmbier was pressed to make a televised confession, then convicted of subversion after a short trial. He was denied communication with his family. In June 2017, his parents were informed he was in a coma and had been in that condition for one year.
Though foreign nations are generally immune from lawsuits in U.S. courts, Howell cited several exceptions that she said allowed her to hold North Korea liable. Those include the fact that North Korea has been designated by the U.S. as a sponsor of terrorism, that the Warmbiers are U.S. citizens and that the actions of the North Korean government involved torture and hostage taking.
The penalty awarded to the Warmbiers and to Otto Warmbier's estate includes punitive damages as well as damages for economic losses, pain and suffering and medical expenses.
The lawsuit was brought on the Warmbiers' behalf by Richard Cullen, a prominent Virginia lawyer and former U.S. attorney. He told The Associated Press that while "nothing will ever bring Otto back to the Warmbiers or erase their memories of his horrid last 18 months," the judge's decision was "very good news for his family and friends."