Yazmin Juárez sat in front of a House subcommittee Wednesday and recalled the most horrible experience of her life.
She spoke to the lawmakers about how her 21-month-old daughter, Mariee, died of respiratory illnesses after leaving Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody last year.
“We came to the United States, where I hoped to build a better life,” said the 21-year-old mother, who fled violence in Guatemala in early 2018. “Instead, I watched my baby girl die slowly and painfully just a few months before her second birthday.”
Throughout her translated testimony, she choked up with tears recounting how ICE and medical officials continually endangered her daughter’s life, in some cases denying the toddler the care she needed or lying about her condition. Multiple House members wiped tears from their eyes as Juárez told her story and said she was testifying in hopes of preventing other children from dying.
Democrats convened the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to discuss the horrific conditions in migrant detention facilities. This issue has been in the national spotlight amid reports that U.S. Border Patrol stations are overcrowded, unsanitary and unsafe for children who are often forced to sleep on concrete floors.
There have been flu outbreaks in multiple border facilities, and medical experts say the government is failing to provide children with adequate care and safe settings to recover in. Five children have died in Border Patrol custody since December, a few after being diagnosed with illnesses such as the flu or respiratory infections that doctors have told HuffPost were not properly treated. Lawyers who recently visited a Texas border facility told HuffPost they had to ensure that four severely ill toddlers were taken immediately to a hospital.
Juárez’s daughter was healthy after crossing the border, she told the subcommittee. But then she and her child were detained for a few days in a cold Border Patrol facility, where they were packed in a cage with 30 others and slept on a concrete floor. The family was then transferred in March 2018 to an ICE family detention center in Dilley, Texas, where Juárez said they were put in a room with other mothers and their sick children.
Mariee became sick within a week, Juárez said. At first, the toddler was coughing and sneezing, and a doctor diagnosed her with a respiratory infection and prescribed Tylenol. But the next day, her symptoms quickly escalated to include a fever, diarrhea and vomiting.
“She wouldn’t eat. Her little body felt so hot, and she was weak,” she told the panel of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Doctors then said Mariee had an ear infection, and, despite begging them to examine Mariee more thoroughly, they were sent away, Juárez said. The mother tried to return to a clinic a few times, but in at least one case was told to leave. The next time Mariee was seen by a physician, after she had lost 8% of her body weight, the doctor prescribed Vicks VapoRub, which should not be used on children younger than 2, according to the medication’s label.
After 20 days in the Dilley detention center, Juárez and her toddler were sent to New Jersey, where her mother lives. But though the toddler’s medical records say she had been cleared as healthy before leaving the detention center, Juárez says her daughter was never evaluated by a doctor before being released.
After Juárez landed in New Jersey, she took her baby to an emergency room because the girl had a “critically low blood oxygen level of 85%” and was in “acute respiratory distress,” according to a lawsuit Juárez filed against the city of Eloy, Arizona, which had a contract with ICE to oversee the Dilley detention facility. But at that point, it was too late. Juárez said Mariee was taken to the intensive care unit with a viral lung infection. Over the course of the next six weeks, she was transferred to different hospitals and given specialized treatment, including cardiopulmonary resuscitation, blood transfusions and a chest tube insertion.
“I couldn’t even hold her or hug her or console her when she asked for her mother,” said Juárez. “It was a terrible pain to see my child in a situation like this one. As a mother, I wish I could have taken her place.”
Mariee died on May 10, 2018, about two months after arriving in the U.S. It was Mother’s Day in Guatemala, and Juárez said the nurses gave her a piece of paper with Mariee’s handprints in pink paint.
“I’m here today to put an end to this so that we do not allow any more children to suffer and die in this way,” she told the subcommittee. “Mariee could be here with us, but she is not. Next month she would have been 3 years old. That is a very painful date for me.”
After her testimony, members of the subcommittee asked about the conditions in detention facilities and about why Mariee didn’t get better treatment. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said the committee should be investigating whether ICE is falsifying records to cover up medical neglect, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) used her time to tell Juárez that, “as a mom, as an American and as a human being, I am sorry.”
When Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) asked why Juárez had come before the committee, the mother replied:
“I’m here because I want to make a difference to help more children in the name and in the memory of Mariee. If it’s possible to make that difference and to make that change, believe me, I want that to happen.”