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Rep.-Elect From New Mexico Calls For Probe Into Migrant Children's Deaths

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Department of Homeland Security is promising changes after two young migrant children died in U.S. custody. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, will conduct medical checks on every child in its custody. Meanwhile, the secretary of Homeland Security says she's asked the Defense Department to increase medical staff along the border. She has also asked the U.S. Coast Guard's medical corps to assess the CBP's medical programs. Now, this is after an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy died earlier this week at a hospital in New Mexico. And earlier this month, a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl died a couple days after she was taken into custody with her dad.

Xochitl Torres Small was recently elected to Congress. She'll be representing the district in New Mexico where both of these kids were detained. Good morning, Congresswoman-elect.

XOCHITL TORRES SMALL: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So a number of steps announced by the Department of Homeland Security. What do you think about them?

TORRES SMALL: I am encouraged that the CBP is taking steps to address this incredibly sad and sorrowful situation. I am disappointed that it's taken the death of two children to make this happen and know that we have to start working quickly to make sure that we are, of course, evaluating the health of the children in our care, as well as reviewing the medical - the facilities where they are being detained.

KING: You went to the place where the 7-year-old girl, who died earlier this month after entering the U.S., was detained. What did you see there?

TORRES SMALL: We saw a complete lack of appropriate facilities and care. And we saw - I met with agents who were incredibly frustrated about their inability to do their job and to care for the people who are in their custody. We saw a situation that was not responding to the changing circumstances of who is now being detained. Whereas it used to be mostly men who were on their own, now it is families who are presenting at the border. And these detention centers are not suitable - or, sorry, these holding cells. So when they're in CBP custody, these are holding cells that are not suitable for that purpose.

KING: What did the agents tell you specifically? Did you hear from anyone, like, look, we need more doctors than we have, we need more - you know, we need a better ability to care for children? What were some of the specifics you heard?

TORRES SMALL: Some of the specifics I've heard is that people feel like the forward operating bases are not suitable for receiving families. They don't have the medical equipment that's necessary. They don't have the people on staff with the medical training necessary to really evaluate children and their health.

I've also heard from border agents who have their own children and are frustrated when they don't have hot meals, or they only have microwave food to serve people who are being detained, and even more frustrated when people are being detained for long periods of time, sometimes over the 72-hour limit, in a facility where there's no walls around the toilet and where there are issues with the water. The facility that I visited in Antelope Wells did not, at the time that we visited, have running water. So there were only three portable toilets available.

KING: Just briefly, you're calling for an investigation into the death of these two children. What do you want to know?

TORRES SMALL: We need to know how we keep this from happening again. I am interested in solving problems, and the entire breadth of the investigation should be pointed in that direction. How do we make sure that CBP is an agency that is able to keep us safe by adapting to changing circumstances and doing that quickly?

KING: Xochitl Torres Small, headed to Congress for New Mexico.

Thank you so much.

TORRES SMALL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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