Texas migrant detention center quarantined amid flu outbreak after 16-year-old dies

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has stopped taking detainees at its main processing center in McAllen, Texas, after identifying "a large number" of migrants suffering from flulike symptoms, the agency announced late Tuesday. The move comes one day after a teenage migrant who had been held at the facility died after being diagnosed with the flu.

"To avoid the spread of illness, the Rio Grande Valley Sector has temporarily suspended intake operations at the [Central Processing Center]," CBP said in a statement. "Individuals apprehended in RGV Sector will be held at other locations until this situation is resolved."

Medical staff at the center identified migrants in custody with high fevers and exhibiting "signs of a flu-related illness," and they are now receiving medical treatment, CBP said.

A spokesman in the Rio Grande Valley Sector did not say how many migrants were affected by the illness. The McAllen processing center, a crowded warehouselike building where detainees are held behind fencing and sleep on mats, is among the busiest facilities along the southern border.

The outbreak comes amid severe overcrowding problems at migrant detention facilities in South Texas and heightened scrutiny of the conditions within them, as five child migrants have died in U.S. custody since December. The ballooning numbers of people crossing the southern border to claim asylum has overwhelmed the immigration system, from border stations to the courts, and led CBP to take drastic measures. This month, for example, CBP began boarding some new arrivals onto airplanes to jet them to less crowded facilities.

Kevin McAleenan, the acting homeland security secretary, acknowledged in March that CBP was seeing seriously ill migrants coming into its custody. Some have had the chickenpox or the flu, and infants have had fevers as high as 105.

"We are doing everything we can to simply avoid a tragedy in a CBP facility," McAleenan said in March while speaking in El Paso, describing the U.S. immigration system as reaching its "breaking point." "But with these numbers, with the types of illnesses we're seeing at the border, I fear that it's just a matter of time."

The latest death at a CBP facility came Monday morning, when a 16-year-old migrant who had previously been detained at the McAllen facility was found dead in his cell in Weslaco, Texas. The migrant, Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, had been diagnosed with an influenza A infection one day prior, prompting Border Patrol agents to isolate him from other detained migrants, a CBP official told reporters this week.

The unaccompanied minor was initially detained May 13 after crossing the border near Hidalgo, Tex., with about 70 other people. He was then taken to the McAllen facility, where he remained for a week, even though the law requires that unaccompanied minors be transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours. On May 19, Border Patrol transferred him to the Weslaco facility after a medical screening revealed he was unwell. It was one of two medical screenings he received while in custody, CBP said.

CBP did not elaborate on the specific symptoms the boy exhibited or why he was not taken to the hospital, but the agency said a nurse practitioner prescribed him the antiviral Tamiflu.

The most recent migrant death has raised concern from Democrats and immigrant advocate groups about whether CBP medical screenings and treatment were adequate for the large volumes of people at the facilities.

"When we read of individual deaths, we see them as isolated cases. But clearly, we have a huge systemic problem," Erika Andiola, the chief advocacy officer at RAICES, an immigrant advocacy group, said in a statement. "CBP is mistreating migrants in their custody. Children dying in U.S. custody is a national emergency and should be treated as such."

At the time Carlos died, he was awaiting transfer to a shelter for unaccompanied children, CBP said. The delay in transferring Carlos could be due to the sheer volume of unaccompanied children awaiting shelter placement, creating a backlog that has put the federal government in a tenuous legal position. Though required to transfer unaccompanied children within 72 hours, CBP officials privately acknowledged in March that the overflow has made meeting deadlines difficult, marking a potential violation of a federal court order.

Mark Weber, a spokesman for HHS, said a "minority of cases exceeding 72 hours have generally involved exceptional circumstances," AP reported.

Last month alone, immigration authorities detained 109,144 migrants along the U.S-Mexico border, the most since 2007. More than 60 percent were families or children, The Washington Post's Nick Miroff reported. Tents have been set up in Border Patrol parking lots to alleviate the overcrowding.

On Monday, CBP acting commissioner John Sanders said the agency is "committed to the health, safety and humane treatment of those in our custody." He said CBP was "saddened by the tragic loss" of the 16-year-old migrant, and offered condolences to his family.

All five of the migrant children who have died since December were from Guatemala.

A 2½-year-old Guatemalan boy died in El Paso last Tuesday after spending several weeks in the hospital, the Guatemalan Consulate and another source confirmed to The Washington Post. The toddler had spent three days in federal custody before being taken to the hospital. Guatemala's general consul, Tekandi Paniagua, said he appeared to be suffering from pneumonia, although the cause of death has not been confirmed.

On April 30, a 16-year-old unaccompanied minor from Guatemala died in federal custody after falling ill with a "severe infection" in his brain. He had cleared the initial health screening, but deteriorated within days after arriving at the Casa Padre shelter, a Walmart converted into a housing facility for minors in Brownsville, Tex., authorities said. He died after spending several days in intensive care at a hospital.

In December, two Guatemalan children died shortly after being apprehended by CBP. An 8-year-old boy died of complications from influenza B infection, while a 7-year-old girl died of a bacterial infection. The deaths led DHS to expand medical screenings.

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