HARLINGEN, Texas (Border Report) — An 8-year-old Panamanian girl was held for eight days by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and receiving medical care when she died last week in federal custody in the Rio Grande Valley, the agency says.

But migrant advocates question why she and her family were in detention for so long, and say the Biden administration needs to change policies that prevent legal aid groups from contacting asylum-seekers while in CBP custody.

On Sunday, after the Associated Press reported that her mother claimed she was denied attention for three days, CBP officials released updated information on medical care they said was given to the girl while in custody.

The AP reported this weekend that 8-year-old Anadith Tanay Reyes Alvarez was not sent to a hospital for care prior to her death, despite repeated requests from her mother.

She died Thursday at a CBP processing facility in the South Texas border town of Harlingen, CBP officials have confirmed.

Anadith Tanay Reyes Alvarez, 8, a Panamanian national, died in Border Patrol custody at this facility in Harlingen, Texas, on May 17, CBP says. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

But CBP is defending the medical treatment the girl received in custody, saying she was receiving medical care and medication for the flu during the last four days of her life. And the agency says she had serious pre-existing conditions before illegally crossing the border with her family into Brownsville, Texas.

New details from CBP

On May 9, her family — including her mother, father, and two siblings ages 8 and 13, who are all Honduran nationals — illegally crossed the border from Matamoros, Mexico, and were apprehended. The agency says they spent their first night in the United States at the outdoor pop-up mobile processing facility that has been named “Camp Monument.” That is where thousands of asylum-seekers were screened and processed after crossing near an abandoned golf course into Brownsville in the weeks leading up to the May 11 lifting of Title 42, which ushered in stricter regulations from the Biden administration that migrants must now follow in order to claim asylum.

But the family arrived two days before the lifting of Title 42 — the pandemic-era restrictions that since 2020 had prevented migrants from claiming asylum at the border to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Most of the migrants that Border Report spoke with who arrived in Brownsville before Title 42 transitioned to stricter Title 8 regulations, were processed and released on humanitarian parole within a day.

Migrants are seen taken in custody on May 5 in Brownsville, Texas, in a pop-up CBP processing facility called ‘Camp Monument.’ (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Nevertheless, Anadith and her family were kept in CBP custody for over a week. When asylum-seekers are in CBP custody they are not allowed or granted access to legal aid or outside help from migrant advocacy groups, or allowed phone calls or visitors. Under federal rules, it is not until they are released to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or paroled that they can seek outside help.

On May 10, the family was transferred to another much larger and established CBP processing facility in the nearby town of Donna, Texas. According to the agency, “CBP records indicate the eight-year-old was medically assessed at this time, did not complain of any acute illnesses or injuries, but the family did report a medical history including the chronic conditions of sickle cell anemia and heart disease.”

However, her mother, Mabel Alvarez Benedicks, told the AP that her daughter was denied care, saying: “She cried and begged for her life, and they ignored her. They didn’t do anything for her.”

Video from inside the facility, CBP says, shows that on May 14 — four days later — the girl and her mother were taken to a medical unit. The girl was complaining of abdominal pain, nasal congestion and cough. She had a fever and tested positive for Influenza A and was given fever-reducing medicine and an anti-viral medication to treat the flu.

Her past medical history, including undergoing heart surgery at the age of 5, was documented, and “based on agency protocols” the entire family was transferred again. This time to a Border Patrol station about 30 miles east in Harlingen, Texas, “which has been designated for cases requiring medical isolation for individuals diagnosed with or closely exposed to communicable diseases,” the agency said.

For the next three days, she received regular doses of daily medication. But on May 17, the mother brought her three times to the medical unit, the last time shortly before 2 p.m., “carrying the girl who appeared to be having a seizure, after which records indicate the child became unresponsive.” She was sent to a local hospital and declared dead within an hour.

The Cameron County coroner is conducting an autopsy, and CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) is investigating the death.

72-hour limit

The death has triggered much criticism from migrant advocates who say young children should not be held for so long in detention facilities, adding that it violates CBP’s own National Standards on Transport, Escort, Detention, and Search policies.

According to the policy: “Detainees should generally not be held for longer than 72 hours in CBP hold rooms or holding facilities. Every effort must be made to hold detainees for the least amount of time required for their processing, transfer, release, or repatriation as appropriate and
as operationally feasible.”

Kassandra Gonzalez, a lawyer with the nonprofit legal-aid group Texas Civil Rights Project, says Anadith should not have been held over 72 hours, let alone 185 hours.

Kassandra Gonzalez is a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“Kids should not be held in CBP custody, essentially jail, for any extended amount of time,” Gonzalez told Border Report on Monday. “There’s no reason that this family and child should have been held in CBP custody for this long.”

Gonzalez works with the group’s Beyond Borders project, which offers legal aid to asylum-seekers in South Texas. But she has no access to migrants when they are in CBP custody, and that’s something she and other migrant advocates want the Biden administration to change.

“The inability for attorneys to access clients in CBP, custody is a huge, huge concern and something that we’ve been pushing against as we know that asylum seekers need access to counsel and for issues like this and advocating.

The Texas Civil Rights Project has spoken with Anadith’s family, she said. They believe the child did not receive adequate medical attention from the medical agencies that the federal government contract with to oversee CBP facilities.

“When in CBP custody, individuals are supposed to be getting medical care. And the record or as news media has reported it, the mother had requested numerous times for medical attention for her daughter that was not responded to. And we know that she died on the 17th. She was diagnosed on the 14th. So that is also a really short timespan for her to have gotten worse and not have gotten additional emergency treatment,” Gonzalez said.

She said her organization is representing the family of a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy who also died in CBP custody in the Rio Grande Valley in 2019.

Outrage among advocates

There’s a “need for policies that protect our right to seek asylum, and that welcome people with dignity. Children should not be held in these conditions that we know are horrible. There have been lawsuits and there have been multiple reports, at the federal and state levels, about how horrible some of these detention centers are, and yet we continue to allow for family detention and children in these places,” Gonzalez said.

“Anadith deserves to be alive today. Border Patrol staff ignored the minimum safeguards for protecting the lives in their custody,” Bilal Askaryar, of the Welcome With Dignity campaign for asylum rights said in a statement Tuesday. “Anadith’s death reveals several failures in our asylum and immigration systems. CBP’s own standards mandate that Border Patrol only hold individuals for 72 hours, and yet Anadith’s family was held for eight days. The campaign demands a thorough, timely, transparent, and clear investigation of Anadith’s death. It’s 2023, kids shouldn’t be dying in government custody.”

“For years, immigrants seeking safety have been detained in what many migrants have termed ‘las hieleras’– jail cells along the border known for their frigid temperatures, overcrowded spaces, and deeply inhumane conditions. That is where this little girl was held when she died. We are enraged that this administration has continued to turn its back on children and families seeking safety, rather than offer compassion and care,” Jennifer Nagda, chief programs officer at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights said.

Vanessa Cárdenas, executive director of America’s Voice, a nonprofit said: “CBP needs to learn from this tragedy and take the necessary steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

La Unión Del Pueblo Entero, a Rio Grande Valley-based migrant advocacy group, plans to hold a vigil on Tuesday for Anadith in Brownsville, Texas.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.