DHS watchdog confirms border officials failed to conduct required checks on teen who died in custody

DHS watchdog confirms border officials failed to conduct required checks on teen who died in custody

In a one-page press release Friday, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) watchdog said that U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) officials failed to conduct “regular and frequent physical checks as required” on Carlos Gregorio Hernández Vásquez, a 16-year-old Indigenous child from Guatemala who died alone while in U.S. custody in May 2019.

“The investigation determined that USBP did not conduct regular and frequent physical checks as required by the Customs and Border Protection National Standards on Transport, Escort, Detention, and Search policy,” the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) said. The release noted that “recorded hourly welfare checks” claimed by officials “had not actually occurred.”

Video obtained by ProPublica in late 2019 had already confirmed that Carlos died amid neglect while in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody—and that officials had lied about it. “Contrary to the agency’s press release, it was Carlos’ cellmate who found him, not agents doing an early morning check,” the report said at the time. The boy had developed a 103-degree fever while in custody but was only prescribed Tamiflu, with staff missing “increasingly obvious signs that his condition was perilous,” the report said.

Staff would subsequently claim they’d conducted welfare checks on the boy, but video showed him sprawled on the floor for hours after collapsing. He died, alone, next to a toilet. “According to a ‘subject activity log’ maintained by the Border Patrol throughout Carlos’ custody, an agent checked on him three times during the early morning hours in which he slipped from unconsciousness to death, but reported nothing alarming about the boy,” ProPublica reported at the time. His May death would make him the fifth child to die after being taken into U.S. custody since the preceding December.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), in calling on the inspector general in late 2019 to expand the investigation into the boy’s death, had asked investigators to refer any findings to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution if needed. “Surveillance video footage demonstrates CBP failed to care for Carlos, and lied about the circumstances around his death,” they said. But last week’s announcement said, “investigative findings were presented to the United States Attorney’s Office, Southern District of Texas, McAllen Division, who declined prosecution, citing a lack of any criminal violations and a lack of criminal intent.”

The announcement further said that “independent contracted medical examiner identified the individual’s cause of death as natural from H1N1 and bacterial/staph infections, which would have resulted in a rapidly fatal outcome, even with immediate and appropriate treatment.” However, it’s also important to note that Carlos had been detained in harmful border facility conditions for nearly a week, in violation of a 72-hour limit intended to protect migrant children. “Hernandez was also never taken to a hospital despite the apparent seriousness of his illness and the fact that the flu has claimed the lives of two other Guatemalan children in Border Patrol custody in the last six months,” Texas Monthly reported in July 2019.

Nothing else is known about the inspector general’s investigation because the full findings don’t appear to be public. House Homeland Security Committee chair Rep. Bennie Thompson, among legislators who had urged a full investigation into Carlos’ death, urged the full report’s release. “It is critical that the OIG share its full final report and CBP take corrective action to help ensure a tragedy like this never occurs again,” Thompson said according to CBS News. “The committee will be continuing its investigation into this matter, including whether those who falsified records in this case were held accountable.”

The @HomelandDems @BennieGThompson are continuing to investigate and call for the OIG report release. pic.twitter.com/2LFgjNxVTd

— Carrie Cordero (@carriecordero) September 17, 2021

We must also remember that investigations without accountability mean nothing. In recent days, border agents have been documented whipping at Haitian asylum-seekers and migrants at the southern border in shocking, widely-condemned images. “Human beings should never be treated that way, and I was deeply troubled about it,” The Washington Post reports DHS Sec. Alejandro Mayorkas said, pledging an investigation. But we don’t even know if the border officials who lied about Carlos’ death more than two years ago are still in their jobs. How does that bode for asylum-seekers and migrants being abused at the border right now?

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