Asylum seeker says federal agents treated her cruelly and provided inhumane conditions.
An asylum seeker whose 19-month-old daughter died last year shortly after spending three weeks in a federal detention facility delivered wrenching criticism of government personnel and policies during emotional testimony to lawmakers on Wednesday.
A panel of the House Oversight and Reform Committee heard testimony from Yazmin Juárez, a Guatemalan national who is seeking asylum in the United States. Juárez was held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody for three weeks, during which time her daughter, Mariee, became ill. Mariee was hospitalized immediately after ICE discharged her and her mother, but died six weeks later. Juárez has filed a lawsuit against the government.
“I’m here today to put an end to this and so we do not allow any more children to suffer and die in this way,” Juárez said through a translator.
Juárez described the ICE facility in Texas as cold and unsanitary. Children in her holding cell were clearly sick, she said, but ICE personnel made no effort to separate the healthy from the unhealthy. Mariee got sick and a nurse diagnosed her with a respiratory infection. When things got worse, a physician’s assistant suggested Mariee had an ear infection and provided antibiotics. Mariee’s condition continued to worsen, but Juárez said she was turned away when she continued to seek appointments at the facility’s health clinic. Juárez added that ICE officials made note in Mariee’s file of a doctor’s appointment than never occurred and said at another point that a medical staffer simply gave Mariee a popsicle.
Juárez said ICE agents directed derogatory terms at her, while also explaining that Trump was president and threatening to separate her from her child. The Guatemalan national repeatedly said she did not feel safe while in ICE custody.
She agreed to testify, she said, to inspire lawmakers to take action to ensure that no migrants have to live in the same unsafe conditions.
“The world should know what is happening in ICE detention,” Juárez said. “My beautiful girl is gone but I hope her story would spur the country to act so more children do not die because of neglect and mistreatment.”
An ICE spokesperson said the agency could not comment on specifics of pending legal cases, but defended ICE by noting the array of medical staff available to detainees in its custody
“ICE takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care,” the spokesperson said. “ICE is committed to ensuring the welfare of all those in the agency’s custody, including providing access to necessary and appropriate medical care. Comprehensive medical care is provided to all individuals in ICE custody.”
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, the top Republican on the panel, criticized the hearing at the outset, saying the harsh tone "doesn’t allow us to come together."
“We demean the process and Border Patrol agents who are law enforcement officers for the government of the United States trying to do their job when we call [the detention cells] cages,” Roy said. He was the only Republican to pose a question to Juárez, asking if she still wanted to remain in America. Juárez said, "of course."
Several Democrats, meanwhile, criticized the Homeland Security Department for enabling a culture to exist in which employees could, allegedly, mistreat immigrants.
“What is being pointed to here is a culture of cruelty,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who has drawn the ire of the Trump administration and federal law enforcement for calling the detention facilities concentration camps.
The hearing is the first in a series of three the Oversight and Reform Committee will hold this week to examine the Trump administration’s handling of the situation at the southern border. Wednesday’s hearing focused on the treatment of children detained by the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, which have come under increasing fire for reports of inhumane conditions. The Homeland Security inspector general found last week that migrants at some facilities were staying in overcrowded facilities for longer-than-allowable periods, while The New York Times recently reported on outbreaks of disease and hunger at a facility in Texas.
The committee on Friday will hear from members of Congress who recently visited detention facilities, as well as representatives from the Homeland Security and HHS IG offices. On Wednesday, the committee also heard from doctors and officials at nonprofit centers who reported unsafe and worsening conditions at federal detention facilities.
The hearings come as the Trump administration is starting to see some relief at the border. It announced this week a 28% drop in “enforcement actions” along the southwest border from May to June, a figure that includes both apprehensions of border crossers and the tally of individuals deemed inadmissible at ports of entry. The crossings typically decline in the summer, but Homeland Security said the reduction was 11% greater than the previous year.
“Decreasing apprehension numbers will provide greater opportunities for the DHS to address capacity challenges for those in custody and speed the movement of unaccompanied children into HHS care,” Homeland Security said in a statement.
Both departments received significant financial relief when Congress passed and Trump signed an emergency funding bill that provided $4.5 billion for migrant care.
This story has been updated with comment from ICE.