Yazmin Juárez, the mother of a toddler who died shortly after being released from a for-profit detention center in Texas, offered a powerful testimony in front of a panel of U.S. House members on Wednesday. Juárez said she and her daughter fled violence in Guatemala and hoped for a better future in the U.S. "Unfortunately, that did not happen," she told the lawmakers.
Her daughter Mariee died when she was 19 months old last year, just six weeks after being released from migrant detention near the U.S.-Mexico border. Juárez said she contracted a deadly lung infection during the 20 days she was detained by the U.S. government. It was like "they tore out a piece of my heart," Juárez testified through a translator at the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which was reviewing the treatment of asylum seekers in U.S. detention.
"The world should know," Juárez said. "It can’t be so hard for a country like the United States to protect kids who are locked up." Some members of Congress, including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, looked visibly upset by her testimony. Juárez said Mariee was healthy when the two of them were detained, but they were held with 30 others, including sick children who may have been contagious. Juárez is suing the government for neglect, accusing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of releasing the toddler without providing adequate medical care.
At least seven migrant children have died in U.S. custody since May 2018, after a decade of no such reported incidents in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities. President Donald Trump ran his first campaign with a hard-line immigration platform, and his administration has kept its promise with its anti-immigration policies.
Images of overcrowded and filthy border facilities have brought heightened scrutiny from the public and lawmakers on the living conditions, and both lawmakers and historians have compared them to "concentration camps."
Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, blamed Democrats for the surge of migrants at the border. "The blood is on the hands of the Democrats who refuse to actually address this," Roy said. Apprehensions at the border recently skyrocketed due to a surge of Central American families fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries.
Juárez said she feared for their lives in Guatemala and wanted a better future for her daughter. "Instead, I watched my baby girl die slowly and painfully just a few months before her second birthday," she said. Mariee passed away on what is Mother’s Day in her country, Juárez tearfully recalled. "When I walked out of the hospital that day, all I had with me was a piece of paper with Mariee's hand prints in pink paint that the staff had created for me."
Ocasio-Cortez was at times in tears during the emotional hearing, asking Juárez questions that showed she empathized with her and speaking in Spanish with her. The freshman congresswoman had recently visited migrant detention facilities, meeting with some of the women detained there, and condemned the conditions, saying they were unsanitary and women were forced to drink out of toilets.
"To have a CBP officer tell a migrant woman escaping unspeakable horrors in her home country, and tell them this country is for Americans, and to threaten separating her from her daughter, to threaten a human rights violation, is extraordinarily concerning," Ocasio-Cortez said during the hearing, "and, at a bare minimum, grounds for serious investigation by this committee and other entities."
During the questioning, Juárez told Ocasio-Cortez that ICE agents threatened to separate her from her daughter. "'You know this country is for Americans,'" she said she recalled them saying. "'Donald Trump is my president. And we can take your daughter away from you and lock you in jail.'"