The Trump administration would like everyone to know that it will shoulder no blame for the death of a 7-year-old child in the government’s care. “Does the administration take the responsibility for a parent taking a child on a trek through Mexico to get through this country? No,” said the White House spokesman Hogan Gidley, responding to questions about Jakelin Caal Maquín’s death from dehydration and shock after she was taken into custody by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents. “This family chose to cross illegally,” Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen argued on Fox. Also on Fox, former Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz—a reliable defender of the administration—declared that Caal Maquín’s death sent a useful message: “Don’t make this journey. It will kill you.”
Caal Maquín traveled from Guatemala with her father and crossed the southern border into New Mexico on December 6. Much remains uncertain about her death. Caal Maquín’s family has, for example, disputed the initial statement by CBP agents that she had gone without food and water in the days before entering the United States. Because of this ambiguity, it’s hard to say to what extent the Trump administration’s cruelty-first approach to immigration enforcement contributed directly to Caal Maquín’s death. But the government’s response is uniquely Trumpian in its callousness. “Please present yourselves at a port of entry,” CBP admonished immigrants—despite the fact that the agency has placed sharp limits on the daily number of asylum seekers allowed through such ports, possibly illegally, which has pushed more families seeking asylum to cross without authorization. The same policy stoked chaos last spring, when the administration engineered a humanitarian crisis by separating children from parents at the border.