by Stephanie Hauer
Carlos Hernandez Vasquez was only 16 years old when he arrived at the US border in May 2019. Because his medical needs were overlooked, he died, sick and alone, on the cold concrete floor of the Border Patrol station where he was being held.
Vasquez was a bright and kind high school student from San Jose del Rodeo in Guatemala. He was captain of his school’s soccer team, and proficient in various instruments, including the bombo, lyre, and trumpet. His parents saved up money for Carlos and his sister to secure passage up to America under the care of smugglers who offer paid protection when travelling through drug cartel territories. They survived the difficult journey and were picked up by border agents as soon as they reached the American shores of the Rio Grande.
Carlos was separated from his adult sister for processing because he was a minor. Being so close to his eighteenth birthday, it took extra time to verify his age and properly begin his processing. Upon Vasquez’s arrival, he was given a screening for any health concerns, such as injury or illnesses. When Vasquez arrived, he presented as healthy.
After several days in a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) center filled with thousands of children, Vasquez began to feel sick. He reported symptoms including a headache to a nurse practitioner, who discovered that he had a high fever of 103 degrees. She diagnosed him with the flu, gave him Tylenol to reduce the fever, and recommended that he be checked again within the next two hours. If his condition was the same or worse, the nurse practitioner, Irasema Gonzalez, directed that he be taken to the emergency room.
Vasquez never received a follow up. Instead, he was transferred to a smaller station in Wasalco to be detained and quarantined with other sick children. Vasquez was placed in a cell with another boy. At around 1AM, Vasquez fell face-first onto the concrete, and soon after approached the toilet in their cell and vomited blood. He collapsed to the floor, writhing in apparent pain for several minutes before eventually falling still. He remained on the floor, completely motionless, for the next four hours. CBP’s records show that wellness checks were performed every hour, but no one entered Vasquez’s cell to check on his immobile body surrounded by a pool of blood and vomit.
At around 6AM, Vasquez’s cellmate woke up, noticed Vasquez, and immediately called the attention of the guards. They entered the cell and called in a physician assistant, who attempted one fruitless chest compression. It was clear that Vasquez was beyond saving. He was dead.
Vasquez’s death initiated an investigation. Once it was clear that there was no foul play at hand, the investigation ended. However, this investigation does not acknowledge the absurd—and dangerous—circumstances that led to Vasquez’s death. Record numbers of human beings were corralled into facilities that were well beyond capacity. These facilities were so drastically understaffed that they were in self-described crisis; any amount of children over 6,000 at a time is considered a crisis, and the center had more than three times that when Vasquez was there. Children are not meant to be held in these spaces for more than 72 hours, but Vasquez was there for six days. The facilities were exceedingly crowded, understaffed, and ill-equipped to handle this massive influx.
When pushed beyond capacity, it becomes vital to prioritize so as to run as efficiently as possible. It is clear that when the protection of human life is not prioritized, there are devastating consequences. Vasquez is not the only child who has lost his life in these settings; six other children at the border have died in the past year. The CDC recommended that all the children be given flu vaccines to prevent the spread of this dangerous disease, but Customs and Border Patrol refused because the project was too complex. This leaves children in risky and unsanitary conditions with no protection against a deadly virus. The Office of Refugee Resettlement at the Department of Health and Human Services, which is the next step after processing with CBP, does routine flu vaccinations in their shelters. If Vasquez had been processed on time, he would likely have been able to receive the vaccine before the flu infected him and claimed his life. But because of the extensive delays due to overwhelming influx, Vasquez, as well as thousands of other children, lingered far longer than expected; sometimes, with deadly consequences.
No matter what your political beliefs about immigration and the border, it is clear that we urgently need to have serious conversations about how to improve the conditions in these centers. If we don’t, we risk the very lives of vulnerable children seeking a better, more hopeful life.