U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon has called on the Health and Human Services inspector general, the agency’s watchdog, to open an investigation into the April 30 death of a Guatemalan boy while in U.S. custody. The child, now identified as Juan de León Gutiérrez, was 16. “I write with great sadness and urgency,” states Merkley’s letter, “to request a thorough investigation, regarding the death of a third young unaccompanied child while in the care of the U.S. immigration detention system.”
Juan is the third Guatemalan minor to have died while in custody since December, following the deaths of Jakelin Ameí Rosmery Caal Maquin and Felipe Gomez Alonzo. While Jakelin and Felipe died while in Customs and Border Protection custody, Juan died after being sent to a Texas facility contracted by HHS to detain children. “US Customs and Border Protection clinicians did not notice any health concerns and Gutiérrez did not mention any when brought to the shelter, said Evelyn Stauffer, a Health and Human Services spokesperson,” BuzzFeed News reported at the time.
But it’s unknown if proper translation services were provided and that Juan understood what he was being asked, because his mother told CNN that while he was in good health, he said during phone calls home that “he had something of a headache, perhaps because he was hungry and had not been able to sleep.” The boy’s family said they didn’t want him to leave their village, but with a severe drought leaving them eating once a day, he wanted to go to the U.S. to help provide for them.
Experts have noted climate change as a factor in why some migrants have been forced to flee their home countries. “The ‘dry corridor’ of Central America, which includes parts of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, has been hit with an unusual drought for the last five years. Crops are failing. Starvation is lurking. More than 2 million people in the region are at risk for hunger, according to an August report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization,” CNN reported last year.
The U.S. government continues to remain mostly silent about his death, but the AP reports that Juan died from a Pott’s tumor, which is not a tumor but rather a “swelling that occurs on a patient's forehead caused by an infection in the frontal bone. The condition is rare, and while usually treatable with antibiotics, it can require surgery.” His body is expected to be returned to Guatemala soon. The government there will pay for his funeral costs, but his family can’t afford to travel to the airport to meet his body. "Juan was good, Juan was humble," said his mom. "He was a good son."