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DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen Visits U.S. Border After Second Migrant Child's Death


We start the program today on the southern border. Homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is on a two-day visit to the area. She's been touring immigrant processing facilities and observing medical screenings of children. This comes after two children have died in U.S. custody this month. Monica Ortiz Uribe has been reporting on this story for NPR from El Paso, and she joins us now.



GONYEA: Tell us about the secretary's visit so far.

URIBE: Well, in El Paso, she visited a couple of Border Patrol stations and met with the local Border Patrol chief, who briefed her on these medical screenings they're conducting. She also met with El Paso's mayor, and his name is Dee Margo. And I spoke with Mayor Margo last night. He said he and the secretary talked about this nighttime release of 214 migrants at a downtown Greyhound station last Sunday that got a lot of media attention. And the reason is because Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, usually alerts the local shelter network when they're going to make a big release like this.

This time they didn't, and that left these hundreds of mostly Central Americans out in the cold. And Margo says Nielsen apologized for this, saying that it was a mistake. They didn't discuss the deaths of the two Guatemalan children because those are still under investigation.

GONYEA: What have you learned about the conditions of the processing facilities where these families are held after they enter the U.S.?

URIBE: Well, the conditions are far from ideal. The Arizona Republic looked at testimony in legal filings where migrants describe these facilities, and over and over, they say the same thing. They're held in crowded, windowless spaces, sometimes on the floor, for days. And some said there wasn't any soap to wash their hands or clean vomit off their children's clothes. And medical experts quoted in this story say it's no wonder children are getting sick. Even Customs and Border Protection acknowledges that these facilities were not designed to hold families and is asking Congress for help.

GONYEA: The president tweeted today that he blames the deaths of these two children on Democrats, so I'd like your quick reaction to that. But I'd also like you to tell us what you know about the medical screening of migrant children that is happening as a result of those deaths.

URIBE: Sure. Well, first of all, it's false to say that the deaths of these children are the fault of any political party. The situation is a lot more complicated than the president makes it out to be in his tweets. It's not clear whether Jakelin or Felipe were ill before they arrived at the border. In fact, her father says she was in good health when they first arrived. And I can tell you what's happening in El Paso, which is that the Border Patrol is partnering with 16 medical facilities in the city, including hospitals and emergency centers. And what they're doing is screening all migrant children under age 10 who come into their custody. And, as of Christmas, I'm told that four children have been admitted to the hospital as a result of these screenings.

GONYEA: That's reporter Monica Ortiz Uribe.

Monica, thank you.

URIBE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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