Seven-year-old Jakelin Caal died in a Texas hospital, two days after being taken into custody by border patrol agents in a remote stretch of New Mexico desert. Her family denies official story she had not been given food or water for days.
The family of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died in US Border Patrol custody on Saturday disputed an account from US officials who said she had not been given food or water for days.
In a statement released by lawyers, the parents of Jakelin Caal said the girl had been given food and water and appeared to be in good health as she travelled through Mexico with her father, 29-year-old Nery Gilberto Caal Cuz.
The family added that Jakelin had not been travelling through the desert for days before she was taken into custody.
Tekandi Paniagua, the Guatemalan consul in Del Rio, Texas, told The Associated Press that he spoke with the Jakelin's father. The consul said Nery Caal told him the group they were travelling with was dropped off in Mexico about a 90-minute walk from the border.
Border Patrol officials did not immediately respond to the family’s comments.
The family's statement was released during a news conference in El Paso, Texas, at an immigrant shelter where Jakelin's father is staying. Her family did not attend and has asked for privacy.
The death has drawn attention to the increasingly perilous routes that Central American migrants traverse to reach the US, where some plan to apply for asylum, and to the way migrants are treated once in custody.
Jakelin's family said her father paid a human smuggler to sneak them across the border; asylum wasn't the plan.
Girl arrested on December 6
Jakelin and her father were seeking asylum in the US and were among a large group of migrants arrested on December 6 near a remote border crossing in New Mexico.
Hours later they were placed on a bus to the nearest Border Patrol station, but Jakelin began vomiting and eventually stopped breathing. She later died at a Texas hospital.
Border Patrol officials on Friday said agents did everything they could to save the girl but that she had not had food or water for days.
They added that an initial screening showed no evidence of health problems, and that her father had signed a form indicating she was in good health.
But the family took issue with that form, which was in English, a language her father doesn't speak or read. He communicated with border agents in Spanish but he primarily speaks the Mayan Q'eqchi' language.
"It is unacceptable for any government agency to have persons in custody sign documents in a language that they clearly do not understand," the statement said.
Family seeks 'objective' probe
Jakelin's family has urged authorities to conduct an "objective and thorough" investigation into the death and to determine whether officials met standards for the arrest and custody of children.
A cause of death has not yet been released.
A private prayer service was held in Texas on Friday so her father could see Jakelin's body before it is taken to Guatemala, said Ruben Garcia, director of the Annunciation House shelter where her father is staying.
"All of us were moved by the depth of his faith and his trust that God's hand is in all of this," Garcia said.
Family members in Guatemala said Caal decided to migrate with his favourite child to earn money he could send back home. Jakelin’s mother and three siblings remained in San Antonio Secortez, a village of about 420 inhabitants.
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 151km away.
The Homeland Security Department's inspector general has opened an investigation.