Internal Investigation Confirms Border Patrol Failures Leading Up to a 16-Year-Old’s Death on the Floor of His Cell
A Border Patrol agent logged welfare checks that didn’t happen. Only one medical professional was caring for 200 sick migrants. The government hasn’t said whether anyone is being punished.
This story was co-published with El Paso Matters.
A government investigation into the 2019 death of a Guatemalan teenager in Border Patrol custody has found serious problems with the agency’s handling of sick detainees.
The report, obtained by ProPublica through a public records request, concludes that Border Patrol agents did not check on 16-year-old Carlos Hernandez Vasquez, who died of the flu after writhing on the floor of his cell in Weslaco, Texas. The report also found that the case reflected broader problems with care in a detainee system that at the time was overwhelmed with migrants, many of whom were ill.
The findings echo the conclusions of a ProPublica investigation from two years ago that revealed how the government failed in taking care of Hernandez.
Hernandez had been detained by Border Patrol agents in May 2019. After being in custody for a few days at an overcrowded processing facility, the Guatemalan migrant had been diagnosed with the flu and was running a 103-degree fever. A nurse practitioner who treated Hernandez wrote that he should be checked again in two hours and taken to the emergency room if his condition worsened.
Agents noted in log books that they regularly checked on the boy after he was moved to another Border Patrol station that housed sick migrants. But video surveillance of his cell showed no sign of it, the report said.
The government report said that agents never went inside Hernandez’s cell that night as he lay ill. It wasn’t until the morning, when Hernandez’s cellmate woke up and found him unresponsive, that agents finally entered the cell.
Falsifying federal records to impede administration of an agency’s function is a crime. But the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas declined to prosecute anyone in Hernandez’s death, the report said. The U.S. attorney declined ProPublica’s request for comment on the decision.
The report is by the Office of Inspector General, which is the internal watchdog for the Department of Homeland Security. The government issued a press release in September about the general findings, but the report itself was not released. Most of the report was provided to ProPublica in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The report still leaves many questions unanswered, including whether anybody involved in the case has been disciplined.
The government also did not provide the full report to ProPublica. The inspector general’s office said it was releasing 164 pages of documents, but it has provided only 104. The agency hasn’t responded to numerous inquiries about the discrepancy.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the parent agency of the Border Patrol, declined to comment on whether any agents have faced discipline stemming from Hernandez’s death or whether any changes had been made as a result of the inspector general report.
The agency said it is continuing an internal investigation, 32 months after Hernandez died and four months after receiving the inspector general report.
The Texas Civil Rights Project, which represents Hernandez’s family, also declined to comment on the report.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the report identified several failings. It “confirms a concerning lapse in care for the health and well-being of Carlos, as well as the importance of appropriate training and resources for personnel caring for children in custody. CBP must do better,” the Mississippi Democrat said.
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