WASHINGTON — A Guatemalan mother seeking asylum told a House panel Wednesday that she came to the United States seeking safety, but instead watched her infant daughter die slowly and painfully after the baby received shoddy medical care while they were in immigration custody.
As Yazmin Juárez spoke, an image of her brown-eyed baby girl, Mariee, was put up on television screens in the hearing room. The baby had fallen ill with a high fever, vomiting and diarrhea when mother and daughter were detained in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility last year.
"It's like they tore out a piece of my heart," Juárez said. "I wanted to have a better life for her and a better future so that she could keep growing, but now we won't be able to do that and she is gone."
The emotional hearing before a House Oversight and Reform subcommittee came amid renewed outrage — and an increasingly acrimonious political atmosphere — over treatment of children at the border following media articles and a watchdog report that found squalid conditions for children. Many were crammed for days or weeks into fetid spaces not meant to hold them longer than 72 hours.
Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, the top Republican on the subcommittee, said even the hearing's title, "Kids in Cages," seemed solely meant to twist the political knife aimed at the Trump administration, especially given that the chain-link fences were common under the Obama administration.
"We all agree they're stretched, there is no disagreement in this room," Roy said of border officials, arguing that rank-and-file officers and agents are being unfairly criticized. "I've seen these facilities and I have not seen a cage in the way it has been depicted."
Another witness, Mike Green of the nonprofit Human Rights First, said the recent news of Border Patrol agents mocking migrants and lawmakers in a secret Facebook group is no surprise given the strain they are under, and the fact they are being asked to do work they are not trained to do.
"This is an entirely predictable result," said Breen, an Army veteran, blaming what he said were terrible government policies on placing law enforcement officers in untenable positions.
Tens of thousands of migrant families cross the border each month, greatly straining an immigration system that has struggling to keep up amid Trump's hard-line rhetoric.
The numbers for June were down 28% as hot weather and a Mexican crackdown on asylum-seekers traveling through Mexico had an effect. Administration officials say it's a step in the right direction, but they say the system is still at the breaking point.
The hearing was one of three on the issue planned over the coming weeks on Capitol Hill. On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee was to consider subpoenas regarding the administration's practice of separating families at the border.
The committee chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, said the treatment of children has amounted to "government-sponsored child abuse."
"We should all be able to agree on some basic fundamental premises. First, anyone in the custody of the United States of America should be treated humanely and with respect," Cummings, D-Md., said at a news conference before the hearing.
Six children have died in government custody in recent months, either in the custody of Border Patrol, where migrants are first held when they cross the border, or in the custody of Health and Human Services, the agency responsible for the shelter of unaccompanied children. A pediatrician who testified said there are scores of doctors ready to help — but they were turned away by government officials, and begged to be allowed inside the facilities.
Juárez was in ICE custody, she had already been transferred out of Border Patrol custody.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat who has referred to the detention facilities as concentration camps, asked Juárez in Spanish whether there are safe and sanitary conditions.
"No," Juárez said.
The room was silent during her testimony and some lawmakers wiped away tears.
She said the nurses at the facility did not conduct thorough medical examinations, dismissing her pleas with Tylenol. She was seen once by a doctor and was given an ice pop. She said her and her daughter were released about two weeks after they arrived. The baby was cleared for travel despite her illness.
Juárez, who has filed a legal claim seeking $60 million from the U.S. government for her baby's death, said she testified because she wanted everyone to know about conditions.
"I do not want more children to suffer," she said.