RAXRUHA, GUATEMALA – Outside a humble thatched-roof home deep in the lush Guatemalan countryside, the mother of a 7-year-old girl who died after being detained by U.S. border agents tries to remember happier days with her daughter.
The 27-year-old woman mournfully points to a nearby tree that young Jakelin Caal enjoyed climbing.
“I feel pain and sadness over the death of my daughter,” said Claudia Maquin, speaking in her native Maya Q’eqchi’ language through an interpreter.
Jakelin’s death in American custody on Dec. 8 — which followed her detention after illegally crossing from Mexico with her father — has reignited a debate in the United States on immigration policy and mistreatment of migrants.
It has also shocked residents of this indigenous farming village of unpaved roads that has neither electricity nor running water, and where crushing poverty is the norm.
The child’s death came as President Donald Trump struggles to deter a tide of migrants fleeing poverty and violence in Central America.
Nearly 60 percent of Guatemala’s 17 million people live under the poverty line, according to government and World Bank figures.
That rate is higher in indigenous communities like the remote village where young Jakelin lived in the municipality of Raxruha, some 145 km (90 miles) north of the capital Guatemala City.
Jakelin’s father, Nery Caal, 29, left the village to travel to the United States with her on Nov. 30.
“He left out of necessity,” Maquin told AFP, with her father-in-law Domingo Caal acting as an interpreter.
“When he left he said that he’d be looking for work there,” she said.
Jakelin traveled north with her father because “the girl was very close” to him, said Domingo Caal, 61.
He said the girl was “jumping with joy” as she began the trip.
Before leaving “she told her mother and grandmother that when she grew up she would work and bring money to them,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security confirmed the death of the girl, saying she died of dehydration and exhaustion in an El Paso, Texas, hospital less than 24 hours after being detained as part of a group of 163 illegal border crossers in a remote New Mexico border area.
The DHS confirmation came only after it was reported by The Washington Post.
Guatemala’s foreign ministry said the child came down with fever and was shaking and vomiting after she was in U.S. Border Patrol custody, where she received aid from paramedics before being hospitalized.
The girl’s father, who is seeking asylum in the United States, issued a statement Saturday in his family’s name “seeking an objective and thorough investigation” into his daughter’s death.
The statement was read to reporters by Ruben Garcia, the head of Annunciation House, the refugee shelter where he is staying in El Paso, Texas.
Jakelin, who was just five days past her seventh birthday, had not been crossing the desert for days and “had not suffered from a lack of food or water prior to approaching the border,” the statement read.
The statement also said that it was “unacceptable” that U.S. agents had the father, who mainly speaks Q’eqchi’, sign documents in English.
Immigrant rights activists, several waving signs and clutching pictures of the young girl, rallied to protest Jakelin’s death in downtown El Paso as Border Patrol agents warily looked on from a distance.
“We want to know what happened during those hours in which she was detained and then taken to hospital,” said one of the protesters, Fernando Garcia, head of the Human Rights Border Network advocacy group.
The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general announced an internal investigation into the girl’s death.
The Guatemalan government has offered to bring back the girl’s remains, and said that her father would be released by special permission from U.S. immigration authorities.
The late girl’s uncle, Jose Caal, told AFP that it could take some three weeks to complete the process to repatriate the girl’s body for a funeral.
“It’s very painful, very painful, but what can we do?” asked Domingo Caal.
“What happened, happened, but it’s painful,” he said.