YUMA, Ariz. -- President Donald Trump said Saturday that "any deaths of children or others" in U.S. custody at the U.S.-Mexico border were "strictly the fault of the Democrats," as his government promised more thorough health screenings for migrant children.
"Border Patrol needs the wall and it will all end," Trump said in a follow-up message on Twitter.
In his first comments this month about two Guatemalan children who died in the custody of U.S. Border Patrol agents, Trump said they were "very sick before they were given over to Border Patrol."
However, immigration authorities have said both children passed initial health checks, and the mother of the boy who died Christmas Eve said her son was healthy when he left Guatemala with his father.
Jakelin Caal, 7, died on Dec. 7, and Felipe Gomez Alonzo, 8, died on Monday. The president said Democrats supported policies that allow people in Central America "to make the long trek thinking they can enter our country illegally. They can't. If we had a Wall, they wouldn't even try!"
U.S. Rep.-elect Harley Rouda, D-Calif., responded on Twitter, "We need a president who doesn't view everything through a partisan lens. Felipe and Jakelin were human children ... not political pawns."
The president's comments came the same day Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was in Yuma, Ariz., to meet with medical staff members at the border. Nielsen said in a statement that "the system is clearly overwhelmed, and we must work together to address this humanitarian crisis." She called on Congress to "act with urgency."
Her office said she was briefed in El Paso, Texas, on Friday on "recently instituted secondary medical screenings and the more thorough initial health screenings of migrants." Jakelin died in El Paso, and Felipe died in Alamogordo, N.M.
Nielsen has called the deaths "deeply concerning and heartbreaking," and requested medical help from other government agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard. As Nielsen made the trip to Texas, New Mexico's Democratic senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, sent her a letter Friday seeking answers about the boy's death.
El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said he met with Nielsen, and he told CNN on Saturday that he agreed with her that the immigration policy is "broken."
"El Paso is dealing with the symptoms as a result of the lack of fortitude in Washington, on both sides of the aisle, to deal with our immigration policy," the Republican mayor said.
The Trump administration has toughened rules for people entering the country without authorization, including families with children.
The administration has sought to limit the ability of people to seek asylum protections and has worked with Mexico to create a new program in which migrants, most from Central America, must remain in Mexico as their asylum cases are processed.
U.S. law allows migrants to seek asylum protections and, in most cases, to get a hearing before an immigration judge. The immigration court system has lengthy backlogs, and migrants are often released into the country to wait for their hearings. The Trump administration has sought to close what it calls "loopholes," to detain migrants longer and to speed up deportations.
Democrats have said any such changes should be part of a more comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws, and they have opposed rolling back due process rights for migrants.
Trump's tweets came amid a standoff with Democrats over a funding bill that lapsed more than a week ago, forcing a partial government shutdown.
The president has sought $5 billion for the border wall, and he has refused to accept a bill that does not include at least $2.5 billion. Democrats have said they will not go above $1.3 billion for border security provisions, which do not include a wall.
Democrats in Congress have called for hearings to address the deaths of migrants. Six people died in the custody of Customs and Border Patrol authorities in fiscal 2018, which ended Sept. 30.
This month's deaths are the first of children in Customs and Border Patrol custody to die in more than a decade, a Homeland Security official told reporters last week.
Jakelin and her father, Nery Caal, were not provided water as they were held for eight hours at a border station in New Mexico, the family's attorney said, and Jakelin began throwing up during a 90-minute bus ride from that station. Her condition rapidly deteriorated, and she died of dehydration and shock, authorities said.
Customs and Border Protection officials have disputed the attorney's account, saying water and food were available and that the girl had consumed both after having had no food or water for days. Trump supported this version of events, writing on Twitter that "the father of the young girl said it was not [U.S. agents'] fault, he hadn't given her water in days."
That tweet prompted criticism from Democrats.
"You slander Jakelin's memory and re-traumatize her family by spreading lies about why she died," said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas.
Jakelin's family has said the girl was given food and water on the journey to the United States. The family also said the girl walked in the desert for only about 90 minutes after her group was dropped off near the U.S.-Mexico border. The family has called for an investigation into Jakelin's death.
Her father has not blamed agents for Jakelin's death and had signed a form indicating that the girl was in good health.
However, the form was in English. Caal can communicate in Spanish but primarily speaks in Mayan Q'eqchi', and his family has taken issue with the use of the form.
In the boy's case, Felipe Gomez Alonzo and his father were held at a facility in Alamogordo, N.M., on Christmas Eve after days of being shuttled from one Border Patrol facility to another. They expected that the U.S. government was about to release them to await a deportation hearing, as their smugglers had promised.
Instead, the boy threw up and developed a fever that spiked. A New Mexico hospital gave him prescriptions and released him, but he fell sick hours later and was re-admitted to the hospital, where he died.
The boy has tested positive for influenza B, and the cause of his death remains under investigation.
Felipe's mother, Catarina Alonzo, told The Associated Press that her son reported he was doing well every time that he and his father called home during their trek. She spoke with journalists at the family's home in the remote Guatemalan village of Yalambojoch, her stepdaughter Catarina Gomez translating her indigenous language Chuj into Spanish.
"When he called me, he told me he was fine. He told me not to worry because he was fine," Catarina Alonzo said.
The mother said the last time she spoke with Felipe he was in Mexico at the U.S. border and said he was eating chicken.
In Central America, the government of El Salvador is pushing back against Trump's assertion that it doesn't do enough to stem migration north to the United States. Officials there say they have made strides in economic and social improvements to tamp down the root causes of the migration.
A statement released Saturday said the Salvadoran government has pushed a media campaign urging its citizens not to risk their lives making the dangerous journey and especially not to expose children to such a trek. It says migration from the country has fallen significantly this year.
Trump threatened via Twitter the previous day to cut off aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in Central America's so-called Northern Triangle region.
Information for this article was contributed by Nomaan Merchant, Zeke Miller, Colleen Long, Marcos Aleman and Sonia Perez D. of The Associated Press; by David Nakamura of The Washington Post; and by Alyza Sebenius of Bloomberg News.
A Section on 12/30/2018
Print Headline: Trump lays border deaths on Democrats; 2 kids sick before in U.S. custody, he says