Speaking before members of Congress, a migrant mother painfully recalled how her toddler died not long after being held in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. On Wednesday, July 10, Yazmin Juárez testified that her 21-month-old daughter, Mariee, had been healthy during their journey to the U.S. southern border from Guatemala, but after they spent time in a detention facility, Mariee became ill. A few weeks after they were released, she died from complications stemming from a viral lung infection.
"My daughter Mariee and I fled Guatemala last year, seeking asylum in the United States. We made this journey because we feared for our lives in Guatemala," Juárez told a House subcommittee in Spanish, according to a copy of her testimony that was published in English. "The trip was dangerous, but I was more afraid of what might happen to us if we stayed. So, we came to America, where I hoped to build a better, safer life for us... Instead, I watched my baby girl die — slowly and painfully — a few months before her second birthday."
During her emotional testimony, Juárez compared the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention facility where she and her daughter were held for a few days to an "icebox," because of the "freezing cold" temperatures. Many asylum-seekers have made this comparison; in 2018, another migrant mother said in a sworn statement that her 4-year-old son got "very sick" because of the frigid temperatures in the detention facility, the Chicago Tribune reported at the time.
Juárez also told lawmakers that she and her daughter were "locked in a cage with about 20 other people, including children, and forced to sleep on a concrete floor."
A few days later, Juárez and Mariee were sent to an ICE facility in Dilley, Texas, called the South Texas Family Residential Center, according to NPR. When they arrived, Juárez said in her remarks that a nurse who examined Mariee "found her perfectly healthy." At that facility, Juárez said she and her daughter "were packed into a room with five other mothers with children, a total of 12 people in our room" and she noticed that many of the kids were sick.
After one week in custody at Dilley, Mariee also became very sick. "I brought her to the clinic, where I waited in line with many other people in a large room like a gymnasium to get medical care for her," Juárez testified. "We were able to get in and see a physician’s assistant, who examined Mariee and said she had a respiratory infection. She gave her Tylenol, honey for her cough and told me to follow up in six months."
Mariee got worse though; one day later, she "was running a fever over 104 degrees and began having diarrhea and vomiting as well. She wouldn’t eat, and I remember her head felt so hot," Juárez said.
With Mariee's condition worsening, Juárez said she was "terrified" and she brought her daughter back to the clinic. According to Juárez, a different physician's assistant said Mariee had an ear infection and prescribed her antibiotics, but she had a feeling "it was something more serious." Juárez said, "I begged them to conduct more exams, but they sent us back to our room."
Juárez testified that she made repeated attempts to get Mariee more medical attention and said she was turned away twice. "When I finally managed to have Mariee seen in the clinic again she’d lost two full pounds — almost 8 percent of her body weight — in just 10 days," Juárez said. Mariee was still vomiting and coughing, according to Juárez, and a third physician's assistant gave her Tylenol and Pedialyte with advice to come back in a week.
"Mariee did not get better," Juárez said, adding that nearly a week later her daughter was finally seen by an actual doctor, which made her feel "hopeful." Juárez said the doctor gave her Pedialyte, ibuprofen, Zyrtec, and Vicks VapoRub to treat her daughter's ailments. Vicks VapoRub, however, as Juárez noted in her testimony, shouldn't be used on children younger than 2 years old, something she was not aware of at the time.
When Juárez returned to the clinic two days later, she said she "begged a nurse to examine Mariee’s lungs because she continued to cough and it had been nearly two weeks." Juárez testified that Mariee continued to get sicker. "She was vomiting constantly, running a fever and wouldn’t eat or sleep. Her body was limp and hot — I was watching her get more and more sick and was becoming more desperate by the day to find something to make her better," Juárez said.
Juárez went on to explain that on the same day they were scheduled to see a doctor, they were woken early in the morning to be "processed for transfer out of detention" and weren't able to make their appointment.
Several hours later and after 20 days in custody, Juárez and her daughter got on a flight to New Jersey, where her mother lives. Juárez said in her testimony that Mariee's medical records from Dilley indicated that she was "medically cleared."
Once they were in New Jersey, Juárez immediately took her daughter to the E.R., and Mariee was then admitted into the Intensive Care Unit with a viral lung infection. According to Juárez, Mariee spent a total of six weeks in hospitals.
"I watched as my little girl suffered horrible pain," Juárez said. "She was poked and prodded with all kinds of needles, underwent countless tests, and eventually needed a ventilator to help her breath. She was attached to so many wires that I couldn’t even hold her to comfort her when she cried."
Mariee died on May 10, 2018. "All the hard work of doctors at two different hospitals came too late," Juárez told lawmakers, many of whom were brought to tears by her testimony. "... The people who run these facilities are supposed to take care of these children — little angels who have done nothing wrong. Most of the children are brought here by parents seeking a better, safer life for them." Juárez concluded her heartbreaking testimony with a powerful message:
I’m here today because I don’t want another little angel to suffer like my Mariee. I don’t want other mothers and fathers to lose their children. It can’t be that hard in this great country to make sure that the little children you lock up don’t die from abuse and neglect.
"A mother lost her little girl because ICE and those running the Dilley immigration prison failed them inexcusably," R. Stanton Jones, one of the attorneys representing Juárez and her family told the Texas Tribune. "Instead of offering safe harbor from the life-threatening violence they were fleeing, ICE detained Yazmin and her baby Mariee in a place with unsafe conditions, neglectful medical care, and inadequate supervision. ... The medical care Mariee received in ICE detention was woefully inadequate, neglectful, and substandard."
An ICE spokesperson told Romper they weren't able to comment on the specifics of Juárez's case as it's "pending" and declined to comment on her testimony. In a statement to Romper, the ICE spokesperson said the agency "takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care. 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."
ICE's statement added that its medical staff includes "registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, licensed mental health providers, mid-level providers that include a physician’s assistant and nurse practitioner, a physician, dental care, and access to 24-hour emergency care."
"Pursuant to our commitment to the welfare of those in the agency’s custody, ICE spends nearly $270 million annually on the spectrum of healthcare services provided to those in our care," the statement said.
The ACLU Border Rights Center notes that at least seven immigrant children have died either while in custody or after being detained. These startling figures combined with Juárez's gut-wrenching testimony and numerous reports of inhumane conditions in detention centers are hard to hear, but need to be told, listened to, and questioned. Because, as Juárez said before Congress, "It didn’t have to be like this."
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include a statement from ICE.