Last year, 1-year-old Mariee Juárez, a child from Guatemala, died of a respiratory infection that she contracted while in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody with her mother. In this past year, at least six more children have died while in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody, after almost a decade of no child deaths.
On Wednesday, her mother, Yazmin Juárez, shared her powerful, blunt, and tearful testimony before a House subcommittee. Juárez alleged that ICE falsified her daughter’s medical records, and said she wanted to appear before Congress to make sure no more children die from the treatment they receive in ICE and CBP custody.
“I’m here today because I want to tell all people of all the world, in all countries, especially in the United States, that we need to make a change and make a difference to actually care and protect kids more,” Juárez said, her testimony translated into English. “ICE detention centers are terrible, inadequate places to lock children up—I’m sorry to say—as if they were animals.”
Speaking before the committee, Juárez told its members that Mariee was healthy when she was checked out by a nurse when they were first detained in March 2018, fleeing fear-inducing conditions in their home country. She said they were packed in a room with 12 people, with at least one child clearly sick.
As Mariee became ill, first with a weeks-long cough, then a persistent fever, Juárez alleged that doctors refused to examine Mariee’s lungs more closely. She said she would wait in a line morning after morning for an appointment, only to be given Tylenol, Pedialyte and Vicks VapoRub, the latter which Juárez later found out isn’t safe to give to children younger than 2 years old.
She recalled how hot her daughter’s little body and head felt. One night, she said, the toddler wouldn’t wake up when her mother roused her for dinner. Still, Juárez wasn’t given an appointment for Mariee; she told New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that at one point, her toddler was given a popsicle, with her mother told that it would help with the fever.
When Juárez finally gotten an appointment, the family was cleared for release from ICE. Mariee’s medical records, which Juárez provided to the committee, showed she was medically cleared for travel, but Juárez said that was false, and that she was never seen by a doctor. “How many more fraudulent medical records might be out there?” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz asked during her questioning.
Reached for comment via email, ICE responded that it couldn’t comment on Juárez’s testimony or ongoing legal cases, but said it was “committed to ensuring the welfare of all those in the agency’s custody, including providing access to necessary and appropriate medical care,” and cited a 2017 DHS inspector general report which said that family residential centers are “clean, well-organized, and efficiently run.”
Tearfully, Juárez recalled how her daughter was in the hospital for weeks, poked and prodded with tubes. Weeks later—on Guatemala’s Mother’s Day—Mariee died.
“It is very hard to see so many children and for none of them to be my daughter, and to think that I will never see her again, or hug her, or enjoy being with her, or tell her how much I love her,” Juárez said. “You have no idea how hard it is to move on without my little girl. It’s like they tore out a piece of my heart, like they tore out my soul.”
Responding to a question from Ocasio-Cortez about mistreatment she saw or experienced herself, Juárez alleged that she was told by an immigration agent that the U.S. is a country for Americans only, that Trump was their president, and that they could take Mariee away from her and put her in jail.
Juárez sued the U.S. government for $60 million last year. Earlier this year, Juárez filed another lawsuit against the city of Eloy, AZ, which had a contract with ICE to oversee the South Texas Family Residential Center hundreds of miles away in Dilley, TX, where she and Mariee were detained. She’s suing Eloy, which operated as a middleman between ICE and CoreCivic, for $40 million for Mariee’s “wrongful and preventable death,” claiming that the city neglected to ensure that children at Dilley received adequate medical care and sanitary living conditions.
In September, Eloy pulled out of the contract with CoreCivic and ICE, which garnered the city roughly $430,000 in fees annually.
“My daughter is gone. The people who are in charge of running these facilities and caring for these little angels are not supposed to let these things happen to them,” Juárez said. “It can’t be so hard for a country like the United States to protect kids who are locked up.”