Image: Getty

When Yazmin Juárez and her young daughter Mariee arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in March to seek asylum, Mariee was, according to her mother, a healthy, happy 18-month-old toddler.

But after they were sent to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, Mariee developed a respiratory infection from which she never recovered. On May 10, six weeks after being released from the detention center, Mariee died at a hospital in Philadelphia, having spent the last days of her life hooked up to a ventilator.

Now, Juárez’s lawyers are preparing a wrongful death claim against the city of Eloy, Arizona, alleging that negligent medical care her daughter received while detained in Dilley led to her death. (As Vice News reports, as part of a convoluted contracting deal, ICE pays the city of Eloy to then pay the private prison operator, CoreCivic, that runs the Dilley detention center in Texas.)

As Vice News first reported and as the letter Juárez’s attorneys sent to the city of Eloy details, one week after arriving at Dilley, Mariee started showing signs of illness, including a high fever, vomiting, a rapid heart rate, and diarrhea. Juárez’s lawyers state that Mariee never saw a doctor while at the detention center.

After Juárez and her daughter were discharged from the detention center, they flew to New Jersey, going from hospital to hospital before finally ending up at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where Mariee ultimately died of viral pneumonitis.

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According to a pediatrician who reviewed Mariee’s medical records for NPR, the young toddler did not receive adequate care while at the family detention center in Dilley:

“Nobody at any time decided to actually have a pediatrician or a doctor see the child,” said Benard Dreyer, the director of pediatrics at the Bellevue Hospital Center in New York, and a past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Dreyer reviewed Mariee’s medical records from her time at Dilley at the request of her mother’s lawyers, and says that nurses and physician assistants overlooked several high fevers, and other signs that Mariee’s respiratory infection was getting worse.

“Can we guarantee that if [she] had been sent to the hospital a week earlier, it wouldn’t have been too late? I can’t guarantee that,” Dreyer said. But he adds, “the child was very sick and should have been sent to a hospital.”

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In a statement to NPR, ICE officials declined to address the circumstances of Mariee’s death, writing:

ICE is committed to ensuring the welfare of all those in the agency’s custody, including providing access to necessary and appropriate medical care. Staffing includes registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, licensed mental health providers, mid-level providers that include a physician’s assistant and nurse practitioner, a physician, dental care, and access to 24-hour emergency care.

The detention center in Dilley, Texas—built in 2014 under the Obama administration—as well as other family detention centers are notorious for their poor conditions. In 2017, one immigrant rights advocate described some of what she says she witnessed there: “All of the children were unbelievably sick. They were vomiting, they had diarrhea, and all the children had this severe, severe cough, that—I remember I would put my hands on the back of a three or four-year-old and I could feel their lungs rattle when they breathe.”

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This July, two doctors hired by the Department of Homeland Security to conduct a review of ICE’s family detention centers issued a damning condemnation of those facilities, documenting widespread issues, including inadequate medical care.

“In our professional opinion, there is no amount of programming that can ameliorate the harms created by the very act of confining children to detention centers,” they wrote. “Detention of innocent children should never occur in a civilized society, especially if there are less restrictive options, because the risk of harm to children simply cannot be justified.”

Family detention, they continued, is “an exploitation and an assault on the dignity and health of children and families.”