U.S. Rep. Carbajal tours ‘haphazard’ border detention facilities after two migrant deaths

U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal, fifth from left, attends a news conference outside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s detention facility in Almogordo, New Mexico, on Monday following the deaths of two migrant children.
U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal, fifth from left, attends a news conference outside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s detention facility in Almogordo, New Mexico, on Monday following the deaths of two migrant children. Office of Rep. Carbajal

U.S. Congressman Salud Carbajal on Monday joined other lawmakers in touring border facilities in New Mexico where two Guatemalan children died in recent months after being detained for crossing into the United States illegally.

Carbajal, who represents San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties as well as a portion of Ventura County, toured the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s detention facility in Alamogordo, as well as the agency’s internal checkpoint off Highway 70 in New Mexico.

The Alamogordo facility, located about 90 miles west of El Paso, Texas, is where 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo died of the flu while in custody, according to media reports.

Gomez Alonzo’s death came less than two weeks after 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin died in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody of what is believed to be septic shock.

Both children were seeking asylum in the U.S. with their families after fleeing violence in their home countries of Guatemala, according to national media reports.

Since the children’s deaths, Congressional lawmakers have demanded answers.

On Monday, Carbajal joined fellow lawmakers Xochitl Torres Small (D-New Mexico), Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), Jerrold Nadler (D-New York), David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island), Grace Napolitano (D-California-El Monte), Nanette Diaz (D-California-Lynnwood), and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) in touring the facilities.

Though Carbajal called operations at the Customs and Border Protection’s facilities “haphazard,” he said he believes that the agency has improved the quality of healthcare services administered to detainees.

“What became evident was that it wasn’t until about three weeks ago that they implemented some of these (improvements). They’ve beefed up their health assessments and the infrastructure to address health problems for these individuals,” Carbajal said by phone Monday. “Even now, it’s fluid, a work in progress, but it’s certainly better than it was before.”

However, Carbajal said it was striking how U.S. Customs and Border Protection didn’t have “an adequate plan” for providing basic necessities, such as food.

“They literally will go to the Wal-Mart and buy a bunch of frozen burritos for the kids,” Carbajal said. “In some places, there’s just one microwave to heat them.”

Carbajal said he learned from Customs and Border Protection officials during the tour that the Alamogordo facility lacks the capacity to house people when the number of detainments surge.

When that happens, officials may house detainees for four to five days at checkpoint stations, which aren’t designed to house people for more than a day or two.

During that time, the lack of resources may require officials to transport people between facilities for things like showers or healthcare treatment, Carbajal said.

He added that a lack of communication between federal agencies exacerbates the problem. Electronic databases are not synchronized between two Department of Homeland Security departments, Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s bureau of Enforcement Removal Operations.

Despite reports of overcrowding and the lack of essential services to people detained at the facilities, there was “not one” detainee housed in either facility Monday, he added.

“That begs a lot of questions. How coincidental is this ‘influx’ when there’s not one (migrant) there?” he said, adding that “It’s obvious this president has for political reasons sought to fabricate a crisis at the border in order to sell the American people a wall, which was one of his campaign promises.”

In the coming months, Carbajal said, Congressional testimony will likely be given about the circumstances around the deaths of Caal Maquin and Gomez Alonzo.

For Carbajal, a former U.S. Marine who sits on the Armed Services Committee, the trip provided more insight on how troops are being deployed at the border.

Another issue is whether military resources will be used to build the administration’s proposed “wall” along the U.S-Mexico border. Carbajal said that despite a recent surge of migrants seeking asylum — those among the so-called “caravan” mentioned by President Donald Trump before the November 2018 election — immigration and detainment numbers are at a historic low.

“(Trump) wants to use Department of Defense funds to build his wall to manage a fake national emergency that doesn’t exist,” Carbajal said. “It’s important for the American people to understand that.”

But the congressman said he spoke with several Customs and Border Protection officials during the tour for their take on what they need to improve the system.

“I did hear (Customs and Border Protection) officials say they need more boots on the ground and better technology put in place,” Carbajal said. “They didn’t even mention the wall.”

United States Congressman Salud Carbajal led a rally against oil drilling off California’s coast on Wednesday, February 21, 2018 in San Luis Obispo.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune