An 8-year-old girl who died while in U.S. border custody on Wednesday had been detained for a week — more than twice the amount of time the government generally aims to hold migrants, particularly children, according to two people familiar with the situation.
The girl and her family were being held in a Customs and Border Protection facility in Harlingen, Texas, where they were waiting to be deported on a flight to Honduras. The family was among thousands of migrants who crossed the country’s southern border ahead of the expiration of a pandemic-era immigration rule that the authorities had feared would lead to a large influx of migrants and overcrowding at border holding facilities.
The people familiar with the situation spoke on the condition of anonymity because the child’s death is under internal investigation.
Honduras’s foreign ministry identified the girl as Anadith Danay Reyes Álvarez, a Panamanian national known to her family as Ana, who was born with a heart condition. Her parents, who are Honduran, traveled to the United States so that their daughter could have “a better life,” said Antonio García, the country’s foreign vice minister.
Customs and Border Protection officials said on Wednesday that emergency medical services had transported the girl to a hospital, where she died. Biden administration officials did not respond to additional questions about the circumstances surrounding the child’s death, citing the internal review. A border official in Texas who was not authorized to speak publicly said that Ana had a serious medical condition of which officials had not immediately been aware.
Though all migrants are given health screenings when taken into federal custody, the death of a child is at the heart of concerns about the government’s policy of detaining children for any period of time and particularly in crowded settings. While there is no law or official guidance about how long undocumented migrants are to be detained while in border custody, the government typically aims for about three days.
In the past week the authorities have struggled with overcrowding at border facilities, which quickly exceeded capacity after a spike in illegal migration ahead of last week’s lifting of the pandemic-era public health rule, known as Title 42.
That policy had allowed officials to expel some migrants swiftly, instead of holding them in custody. Since its expiration, officials have reverted to policies that involve longer processing times for migrants.
On May 17, the day Ana died, migrants were being held for an average of four and a half days, according to internal data obtained by The New York Times, compared to an average of a little under three days on May 10.
“The bottom line is you need to get families out of C.B.P. custody because the conditions generally are substandard and not appropriate for kids to be held in,” said Wendy Young, the president of the advocacy group Kids in Need of Defense. Scientific studies have concluded that detaining children, even if they are with their parents, can cause developmental and mental health issues.
Brandon Judd, the leader of the Border Patrol labor union, said agents have raised concerns about the crowded detention centers.
“There’s a reason that you have a certain capacity, and that’s for the safety of everybody,” Mr. Judd said. “When you exceed that capacity, then safety levels are going to go way down.”
In 2018 and 2019, when the numbers of migrant crossings reached high levels, the Trump administration came under intense criticism for the death of minors in Customs and Border Protection detention.
In an interview with Univision on May 18, Lorna Santos, Ana’s aunt, said that the child’s mother told officials at the Customs and Border Protection facility that Ana was having trouble breathing, but that a medical staff member dismissed her concerns. Ms. Santos said the girl’s mother told her that Ana later fainted and was taken to a hospital, where she died in the waiting room.
Wilson Paz, the director of Honduras’s migrant protection service, said Ana’s father told Honduran authorities that she had undergone surgery in Panama three years ago to address a membrane blocking blood from reaching her heart. Mr. Paz said she was tested for Covid-19 when she went to the United States, and she was diagnosed with the flu.
The Biden administration has been managing a historic spike in illegal migration for the past two years, as people flee authoritarian states, violence and extreme poverty.
Though the administration added more staff to help process migrants into the country and increased Customs and Border Protection’s capacity to hold migrants before Title 42 expired, it was not enough to stave off the backups that led to overcrowding last week.
In the week since the policy ended, however, the number of illegal crossings have been down significantly, with an average of 3,000 to 4,000 apprehensions a day, the Homeland Security Department said, compared to the nearly 10,000 apprehended a day around the time that Ana and her family crossed. The majority of the migrants have been from Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. Since May 12, more than 11,000 migrants have been expelled to Mexico or repatriated, the department said in a statement on Friday.
On May 10, Ángel Eduardo Maradiaga Espinoza, a 17-year-old Honduran boy, died while he was in a Florida shelter overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency charged with overseeing the care of migrant children who cross into the United States without a parent or guardian. The boy’s mother said he was epileptic but had not been sick when he traveled to the United States.
Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting from Washington.