Trahan filing bill, ignores Pence’s assurances

Bill would alert Congress of migrant deaths, trigger hearings

US REP. LORI TRAHAN on Wednesday described her recent trip to detention facilities along the US- Mexico border last week, talking about how the conditions she saw spurred her to write legislation addressing a small part of the problem.

The Accountability for Migrant Deaths Act would require that Congress be notified within 24 hours of a migrant dying while in US custody. The bill would also mandate that the House Committee on Oversight and Reform or another committee with jurisdiction hold a public hearing within a week of that notification to receive testimony from appropriate agency officials relating to the death. The measure would also limit the secretaries of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services from exerting executive privilege to avoid publicly testifying.

Border patrol officials are not currently required to publicize a migrant’s death in their custody, but are required to notify the head of US Customs and Border Protection, local and state law enforcement, along with consulate offices. Vice President Mike Pence told House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi in June that the White House would make administrative changes requiring the notification of Congress within 24 hours of the death of a migrant child.

Asked during a press conference about whether Pence’s assurance was enough, Trahan replied, “There’s just a general distrust of administration. We want to codify this,” adding that the 24-hour period could “change things dramatically.”

At least nine migrants, including six children have died in US custody since late 2018. Prior to that, no children had died in federal immigration custody in over a decade.

Trahan, who represents Lawrence, Lowell, and Haverhill – all communities with large immigrant populations — released details of the bill with Eva Millona, the director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

“This bill takes a crucial first step by ensuring that Congress gets the information it needs to take appropriate action,” Millona said.

Trahan said that the border facilities had been “well-sanitized” when she and Reps. Joe Kennedy III and Ayannas Pressley visited, to the point of smelling of Clorox. She described seeing makeshift tents and huts in 110 degree heat and three-person bunk beds. “It looked more like a prison than it did a place where you would care for children,” she said. She said two girls, ages three and five, were in an eight-by-ten room laying on the floor with the glass of the window marked with the word “flu” to describe their quarantine.

You would imagine your own child trying to recover from the flu on a floor without proper care,” she said. While Trahan believes that passing her bill could inherently improve conditions in these facilities, she said she isn’t without sympathy for the border patrol agents. “These people are not equipped to take care of families. They’re processing centers,” she said of the sites in El Paso and Clint, Texas.

Many bills are being filed in Congress aimed at improving standards in detention facilities. Trahan said hers is simple by design. “We want accountability for migrant deaths that happen in our custody,” she said. Seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin died from septic shock while under CBP care in December, which drew criticism from Democrats.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Trahan says that once the bill is filed, she’ll work to get members of the Massachusetts, New England, and Texas delegations on board. She plans on lobbying the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which she is a part of, for support later this week.

While the bill does not cover a wide array of issues within the processing centers, Trahan insists her legislation, because it’s simple, could pass more quickly. “I think the notification that triggers a public hearing has teeth,” she said. “I don’t want to see eight deaths turn into 15 or 20. “