immigration

Migrant Baby Contracted Pneumonia After Five Days in a ‘Freezing’ Holding Cell

U.S. Border Patrol detain a group of Central American asylum seekers. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

When A. Portillo, a 23-year-old woman from Honduras, was taken into custody by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in California earlier this month, her five-month-old was sick. The woman, who spoke to BuzzFeed News and asked to be identified by only her first initial and last name, was giving her baby an antibiotic but said she wasn’t allowed to keep the medication after she was detained.

Her baby got sicker as they were held in “freezing” cells — migrants refer to these as hieleras, or iceboxes — and when she pleaded with CBP agents for a doctor, she says they refused. “The agents told me I wasn’t in a position to be asking for anything and that they didn’t tell me to come to the United States,” she said. They also called her an “invader,” she told NBC News.

After being transferred to San Diego and then flying to North Carolina to be with family, Portillo was finally able to get her child to a hospital. The baby had a fever and at one point stopped breathing. Doctors said she had pneumonia. “If I had been able to keep the drugs, maybe they would have made my baby better,” she said.

This CBP horror story follows two others that came to light in the past week. Last Thursday, the Washington Post reported the death of Jakelin Caal. The seven-year-old Guatemalan girl died of a combination of septic shock, fever, and dehydration, just hours after she was taken into CBP custody. On Tuesday, members of Congress touring the facility where Caal was held before she died were told of another young girl who fell dangerously ill while in CBP custody. The girl, whose mother told officials her daughter had a preexisting medical condition, went into cardiac arrest but eventually made a full recovery.

Following the tour, the lawmakers had harsh words for the conditions of the facilities. New Mexico representative Ben Ray Luján said the holding cells where children and adults are held are “inhumane.” Texas representative Al Green said what he saw was “unbelievable and unconscionable.”

“The [ASPCA] would not allow animals to be treated the way human beings are being treated in this facility,” Green said. “To tolerate what I have seen is unthinkable.”

Texas congresswoman-elect Veronica Escobar criticized Trump administration policies that are driving asylum seekers away from ports of entry and toward illegal border crossings. “These are legitimate challenges, but this administration is addressing these challenges in the cruelest way, in a way that in fact makes things much worse,” she said.

It was that very issue that drove Portillo, who left Honduras to escape an abusive relationship, to take her sick infant and cross illegally, BuzzFeed News reports:

She hitchhiked, took buses, and walked through Mexico before reaching Tijuana with the intention of asking for asylum in the US. Portillo put her name on a list managed by other asylum-seekers, but was told she’d have to wait a month and three weeks before she could ask the US for refuge.


After waiting for weeks, Portillo chose to do what other migrants before her have done when US border authorities tell them to wait — she jumped the border fence and then asked for asylum.

Asked for comment, CBP told NBC News that it’s working to get more information on the case.