MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
After the death of a second migrant child in U.S. custody near the U.S.-Mexico border, Customs and Border Protection says it is doing secondary medical checks on every child in its care. They plan to focus especially on children under the age of 10. CBP spokesman Andrew Meehan told NPR the agency has been overwhelmed by the sheer numbers crossing the border.
ANDREW MEEHAN: What we've been seeing over the past few months is a dramatic increase in families with kids. You have Border Patrol stations that are largely at capacity and are not equipped to handle the large surge of families and kids that approach our border.
KELLY: Well, Reporter Monica Ortiz Uribe has been following this story. She joins me now from El Paso. Hi there.
MONICA ORTIZ URIBE, BYLINE: Hi there.
KELLY: Start with the additional medical screenings we mentioned that Customs and Border Protection is doing. What exactly is going on?
ORTIZ URIBE: Yeah, CBP is currently re-evaluating the health of children in its custody. It's working with its own medically trained staff and contract EMTs. And Secretary Nielsen has also asked the Centers for Disease Control to look into the issue of sick children and how CBP and border hospitals can better respond. She also asked the Department of Defense to provide them with more medical profession, which raises the possibility of more active duty troops deployed to the border.
KELLY: Which has been controversial - so we'll watch what happens there. Meanwhile, more details are now coming out about this little boy who died. What are we learning?
ORTIZ URIBE: The boy's name is Felipe Gomez Alonzo. He was 8 years old from Guatemala, and the Border Patrol apprehended him and his father near a border crossing here in El Paso on December 18. They spent six days in processing facilities. And on Sunday, they were moved to a Border Patrol checkpoint on a highway outside Alamogordo, N.M., which is a hundred miles from El Paso. On Monday, he became sick, and the Border Patrol hospital took him to the hospital. He was placed under observation and released. He went back to the hospital later that same evening after he started vomiting and died shortly before midnight on Christmas Eve.
KELLY: Let me focus you on one part of that story you just narrated that is attracting scrutiny - the decision to move him from a hospital to a highway checkpoint. Why was that done?
ORTIZ URIBE: Well, there's a number of factors at play. One is that the authorities who first take custody of immigrants coming across the border are keeping them in their custody for more time - five to eight days versus the 72-hour limit their own standards require. And now they're also dealing with overcrowding, and overcrowding is the reason why Felipe and his dad were moved to this highway checkpoint. Typically these facilities aren't made to accommodate families and sick children, and CBP said the Alamogordo facility didn't have an EMT on staff, which is why they took Felipe to the hospital.
KELLY: All right, so we heard a little bit more there about how CBP is responding now to this second death of a migrant child in the agency's care. What other changes is CBP making?
ORTIZ URIBE: Yes, well, CBP says they're doing the best they can. On average, they make 4,300 rescues a year, and they're asking Congress for relief. On a call with reporters this morning, CBP wasn't very specific about what they want from Congress, but one complaint they have is that immigrant smugglers are incentivized by the government's policy. And that policy is what's commonly referred to as catch and release. It applies largely to Central Americans who can't immediately be sent across the border as is sometimes done with Mexican nationals.
And that means when CBP arrests them, they can either put them in detention or release them with a future court date. And because the immigration courts are so backlogged, these migrants end up staying in the U.S. for months at a time. Now CBP wants lawmakers to do away with this incentive.
KELLY: That's reporter Monica Ortiz Uribe reporting from El Paso. Thanks so much.
ORTIZ URIBE: You're welcome.
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