Q: Is it accurate that “18 children died while in custody of Border Patrol” during the Obama administration?
A: No. Prior to two children’s deaths in December, it had been more than a decade since a child died while in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
18 children died in Border Patrol custody during the Obama presidency! Where was the media outrage then?
The news last month that two children from Guatemala died while in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection fueled scrutiny of the government’s ability to care for young immigrants.
CBP officials reported that 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin died Dec. 8, two days after being apprehended for illegally crossing the Southwest border with her father. Weeks later, the Department of Homeland Security announced that an 8-year-old boy, later identified as Felipe Gomez Alonzo, died Dec. 24 while in CBP custody. He and his father had also crossed the border without authorization.
But in some social media circles, criticism of the deaths was met by claims of a double standard. Viral posts argued that “during the Obama administration 18 children died while in custody of Border Patrol.”
In fact, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a Dec. 26 statement following the two children’s deaths that “it has been more than a decade since CBP has had a child pass away in their custody.” U.S. Border Patrol is a part of CBP, which is an agency within DHS.
DHS has also said that “deaths in CBP custody are extraordinarily rare.” The most recent data publicly available, from a 2016 report to Congress, show that CBP reported 13 deaths in fiscal year 2015 between Oct. 1, 2014 and Sept. 30, 2015 — 10 of which were the result of “use of force.” We asked CBP for more information on the deaths of immigrants in its custody but did not get a response.
What’s more — according to data from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which also falls under DHS and oversees the civil immigration detention system — none of the 67 immigrants who died while in ICE custody during the Obama years were children. The youngest individual to die while in ICE custody during Obama’s presidency was a 23-year-old man from El Salvador.
The “18 children” claim may stem from a misrepresentation of a story published Dec. 18 by a conservative website, the Daily Caller. The headline of that story reads, “18 DEATHS OF ICE DETAINEES ACKNOWLEDGED UNDER OBAMA — BUT NOT INVESTIGATED.”
While the story juxtaposes news of Maquin’s death with information on immigrant deaths during the Obama administration, it never makes the claim that immigrant children died while in custody under Obama. In fact, the story says, “The detainees who died then were between 24 and 49 years old.”
Instead, the Daily Caller revisited a 2016 analysis by Human Rights Watch, which enlisted medical experts to review government information on 18 immigrant-detainee deaths from mid-2012 to mid-2015. The international human rights organization, citing the experts, faulted “substandard medical care and violations of applicable detention standards” as “failures” that “probably contributed to the deaths of 7 of the 18 detainees.”
Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on the social media network.
“CBP Shares Additional Information about Recent Passing of Guatemalan Child.” Press release, U.S. Customs and Border Protection. 25 Dec 2018.
“List of Deaths in ICE Custody.” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Accessed 2 Jan 2019.
“Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen Statement on Passing of Eight Year Old Guatemalan Child.” Press release, U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 26 Dec 2018.
“Statement by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on the Death of a Seven-Year-Old Female Child.” Press release, U.S. Customs and Border Protection. 14 Dec 2018.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “Investigations into Deaths in Custody and Use of Force Incidents.” 17 Aug 2016.
“US: Deaths in Immigration Detention.” Press release, Human Rights Watch. 7 Jul 2016.