Girl who died in US Border Patrol custody dreamed of sending money home

San Antonio de Cortez, Guatemala: The seven-year-old Guatemalan migrant girl who died in US custody this month was inseparable from her father and had looked forward to being able to send money home to support her impoverished family, relatives said.

Nery Caal, 29, and his daughter Jakelin were in a group of more than 160 migrants who handed themselves into US border agents in New Mexico on December 6. Jakelin developed a high fever and died hours later while in the care of US Customs and Border Patrol.

Claudia Maquin, 27, shows a photo of her daughter, Jakelin. The 7-year-old girl died in a Texas hospital, two days after being taken into custody by border patrol agents.Credit:AP

Jakelin's death drew immediate questions from members of Congress and others about whether more could have been done. There were only four agents working with a group of 163 migrants, including 50 unaccompanied children, and only one bus to take them to the nearest station 94 miles (151 kilometres) away. The Homeland Security Department's inspector general has opened an investigation.

That single bus set out on a several-hour trip to the Border Patrol station filled with unaccompanied minors – following protocol – while the daughter and her father waited for it to return.

Once on the bus, about eight hours after having been apprehended, Jakelin began vomiting. Officials said agents radioed ahead to have emergency medical technicians available in Lordsburg. When they arrived, 90 minutes later, she had stopped breathing. Emergency crews revived her, and she was airlifted to an El Paso, Texas, hospital, to which the father was driven.

Jakelin and her father were found near the Antelope Wells port of entry, which was closed when they arrived. It’s not clear if they had been trying to cross legally.Credit:AP

"Happy she was going"

"The girl said when she was grown up she was going to work and send dough back to her mum and grandma," said her mother Claudia Maquin, who has three remaining children, speaking in the Mayan language Q'eqchi and betraying little outward emotion.

"Because she'd never seen a big country, she was really happy that she was going to go," she added, explaining how her husband had gone to the United States to find a way out of the "extreme poverty" that dictated their lives.

Maquin stood behind her palm-thatched wooden house and a few chickens and pigs scrabbled in the yard as she spoke, dressed in a traditional blouse with a six-month-old baby in her arms.

A family photograph at the house showed Jakelin smiling and looking up at the camera, wearing a pink T-shirt with characters from the cartoon series "Masha and the Bear."

Claudia Maquin, 27, walks with her three children outside her father-in-law’s house in Raxruha, Guatemala.Credit:AP

Deforestation to make way for palm-oil plantations has made subsistence farming increasingly hard for the 40,000 inhabitants of Raxruha municipality, where the family's agricultural hamlet of San Antonio de Cortez lies in central Guatemala, local officials said. That has spurred an exodus of migrants.

Setting out on December 1, Caal and his daughter travelled more than 2,000 miles (3,220 km) so Jakelin's father could look for work in the United States, said her mother, who learned of the girl's death from consular officials.

Almost 80 per cent of Guatemala's indigenous population is poor, with half of those living in extreme poverty. The mayor of San Antonio de Cortez described the Caal family as among the worst off in the village.

Mayor Cesar Castro said in recent months more and more families were uprooting to try to reach the United States, often selling what little land they owned to pay people traffickers thousands of dollars for the trip.

Neighbours gather around Claudia Maquin’s house in Raxruha, Guatemala on Saturday, December 15.Credit:AP

"It's not just the Caal family. There are endless people who are leaving," Castro said. "I see them drive past in pickups, cars and buses." He said most of them came back in the end, often penniless after being dropped off by traffickers, caught by authorities and deported.

Jakelin's death has added to criticism of US of President Donald Trump's hard-line immigration policies from migrant advocates and Democrats in the US Congress.

The US government defended Jakelin's treatment, and said there was no indication she had any medical problems until several hours after she and her father were taken into custody.

Father and daughter were inseparable

Domingo Caal, Jakelin's grandfather, said she had gone on the journey because she did not want to leave her father.

"The girl really stuck to him. It was very difficult to separate them," said Domingo, 61, wearing muddy boots and a faded and torn blue shirt.

Jakelin's uncle, Jose Manuel Caal, said he had heard she was ill before she died, but had expected her to recover. "The girl's death left us in shock," he said.

The family hope the girl's father can remain in the US.

"What I want now is for Nery to stay and work in the United States. That's what I want," said his wife.

A Guatemalan consular official told Reuters on Friday that Caal told him he had crossed the border planning to turn himself in to US authorities, and will try to stay.

Elvira Choc, 59, Jakelin’s grandmother, rests her head on her hand in front of her house in Raxruha, Guatemala.Credit:AP

Record numbers of parents travelling with children are being apprehended trying to cross the US border with Mexico. In November, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers detained 25,172 members of "family units," the highest monthly number ever recorded, the agency said.

Parents with children are more likely to be released by US authorities while their cases are processed because of legal restrictions on keeping children in detention.

Caal remains in the El Paso, Texas area, where his daughter died after being flown by helicopter to a hospital there for emergency treatment when she stopped breathing.

A brain scan revealed swelling and Jakelin was diagnosed with liver failure. She died early in the morning on December 8, with her father at the hospital, a CBP official said.

US authorities are investigating the death.

Reuters, with AAP

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