After a final stretch on foot along a dirt road through high desert, a father and his young daughter crossed into the United States at the end of a 2,000-mile journey through Mexico.
It was after dark and they were part of a group of 163 people, apparently including dozens of unaccompanied children, who had made it to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, considered the most remote spot along America’s entire southern border.
Just over 27 hours later, despite desperate efforts to save her, seven-year-old Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin was dead.
And while the results of an autopsy may not be known for some days, the circumstances of her sorrowful death in the custody of the US border patrol agency are already being seized upon as evidence both for and against the Trump administration’s hardline approach to immigration.
Donald Trump’s supporters lay blame with a parent who would put their child’s safety at risk on a perilous journey. Critics of the president’s fear-mongering talk of an “invasion” at the Mexican border blame his policies for driving people to increasingly desperate measures.
As the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) begins an investigation, there are gaps in the story and some vital details are disputed by Jakelin’s family.
According to the DHS , her death followed days of traveling through the desert without enough food or water. A Washington Post report said the border patrol agency cited statements from her father.
An anonymous Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official also told the Post her father did not raise the alarm about her worsening fever while they were in custody. “There were plenty of opportunities, if her father had noticed anything and brought it to agents’ attention,” the official said.
Her father, Nery Gilberto Caal Cuz, 29, who has praised the efforts of emergency responders to save his daughter, later insisted in a lawyer’s statement that he looked after her on the journey and made sure she was fed and had water.
Family members in Raxruhá, her tiny village home in Guatemala, said Jakelin, who celebrated her seventh birthday on the journey north through Mexico, had been given her first pair of shoes for the journey.
Grandfather Domingo Caal said the family got by on $5 a day earned harvesting corn and beans and Jakelin’s father hoped to be able to send money home from the US.
The Associated Press described the family home, a “tiny wooden house with a straw roof, dirt floors, a few bedsheets and a fire pit for cooking, where Jakelin used to sleep with her parents and three siblings. The brothers are barefoot, their feet caked with mud and their clothes in tatters. A heart constructed out of wood and wrapped in plastic announces Jakelin’s death.”
Her grandfather said that the journey had taken about a week and her father had paid a human trafficker to get them across the border, making their crossing into a desolate section of New Mexico wilderness known as the Bootheel, where the border cuts across the mountainous Chihuahua desert.
Ruben Garcia, director of the Annunciation House shelter in El Paso, Texas, where her father is now being looked after, said father and daughter were not part of one of the so-called “caravans” of people walking north across long distances.
“He came up as part of a smaller group that then gathered with other people on the way here,” Garcia said. “He was traveling by bus and there were 40 people, that’s what he told us.”
Tekandi Paniagua, the Guatemalan consul in Del Rio, Texas, said Jakelin’s father told him the group they were travelling with was dropped off in Mexico about a 90-minute walk from the border.
They crossed the border at Antelope Wells, which consists of just four buildings, the border agency’s port of entry, two houses and a trailer. At 4,665 feet, it is higher than Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain, though sun-baked, and even in December, typically reaches daytime temperatures of 76F (24C).
The DHS gave a timeline of what happened after the group of 163 crossed the border on Tuesday 5 December and were stopped by three border agents at 9.15pm. It is said to be the most remote of 43 ports of entry along the border and those who do cross here are usually “give ups” who hand themselves in to border agents.
Informal “waiting lists” to claim asylum are holding people up, but instead of waiting at ports of entry for days or weeks at a time, often in squalor or without shelter, frustrated asylum seekers are opting to cross the border between ports of entry.
The group Jakelin and her father were in was moved to a covered area and apparently interviewed and observed “to identify any health or safety problems to ensure that they receive necessary medical care”.
The DHS said during the screening: “The father denied that either he or his daughter were ill. This denial was recorded on Form I-779 signed by the father. At this time, they were offered water and food and had access to restrooms.”
The father’s lawyers said in a statement that the form was in English, a language her father does not 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.
The agents decided to transport the large group by bus to the nearest border patrol station at Lordsburg, 90 minutes away. The bus arrived and at 18 minutes past midnight, took the first group of 50, all unaccompanied children.
At 4am the bus returned for the second group. “Around 0500, as the second group of detainees – including the child and father – was preparing to depart … the father advised border patrol agents that his child had become sick and was vomiting,” the DHS said.
“At that point, the father notified agents that the child was not breathing,” the statement said. The border patrol emergency medical team requested an ambulance. “At this point her temperature was 105.9 degrees. Agents providing medical care revived the child twice.”
The ambulance arrived quickly, but it was decided to evacuate the girl by helicopter because the road trip to El Paso in Texas was four hours.
A helicopter arrived at 7.30am, left 18 minutes later with the girl on board, and reached the Providence children’s hospital in El Paso, Texas, at 8.51am.
But as the DHS statement records: “Unfortunately, she passed away at 00.35 on 8 December 2018. The initial indication from the Providence Hospital is that she passed due to sepsis shock. Her father was with her.”
“Jakelin’s father is grateful for the many first responders who tried to save Jakelin’s life in New Mexico and Texas,” a statement from his lawyers read.
However, it is important to clarify some key points, they continued. “Prior to going into CBP custody and contrary to the report that Jakelin had not eaten or had water for several days, Jakelin had not been crossing the desert for days.
Lawyers for the family are calling for a transparent investigation into Jakelin’s death.
When the White House was asked on Friday if they took any responsibility for the girl’s death, spokesman Hogan Gidley said: “Does the administration take responsibility for a parent taking a child on a trek through Mexico to get to this country? No.”
Garcia, who runs the Annunciation shelter said he believed the Trump administration was deliberately putting barriers in front of people to make it difficult for them to exercise a right to claim asylum that is guaranteed by US law and international law.
He said: “What people are doing is they are going further and further out and that is dangerous. It is endangering the lives and welfare of families and obviously of children and that is very, very disconcerting.”