Two immigrant rights organizations have launched a legal investigation to determine the circumstances that led to the death of Anadith Danay Reyes Álvarez, an 8-year-old Panamanian girl who had a seizure May 17 while detained with her family in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody. 

Anadith’s mother, Mabel Álvarez Benedicks, is a Honduran immigrant who gave birth to Anadith in Panama. Together, they migrated to the U.S. with Anadith’s father and two sisters before Border Patrol apprehended them May 9 as part of a larger group of migrants near the Gateway International Port of Entry in Brownsville, TX. The family was transferred multiple times, including on May 14 when officials say Anadith first reported feeling ill and tested positive for a type of flu. Officials transported the family to the Border Patrol station in Harlingen, Texas, a facility for migrants designated for cases requiring medical isolation. Anadith died three days later.

CBP has kept the medical records and documentation related to the case secret, despite calls for transparency. CBP’s version of what transpired, which the agency outlined in three different statements, differs from the account of Álvarez Benedicks. 

“There are significant inconsistencies that concern us and have convinced us that Anadith’s death was a product of being in CBP custody,” said Kassandra Gonzalez, a staff attorney at the Texas Legal Rights Project, a civil rights organization that is leading the investigation into the girl’s death. Also involved in the investigation is the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a nonprofit advocating for fair and humane immigration policies.

Anadith’s mother says she told every immigration authority she came into contact with of her daughter’s medical history, which included sickle cell anemia and a history of congenital heart disease. She also repeatedly offered her daughter’s medical records to medical staff. She had plenty of opportunities to do so, as Anadith was seen by medical staff 11 times before her death in custody.

According to Gonzalez, CBP has been communicating information regarding Anadith’s death through its Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) —an internal department created to ensure compliance with all programs and policies related to corruption, misconduct, or mismanagement. According to a statement, OPR contends that “none of the CBP contracted medical personnel or U.S. Border Patrol personnel at Harlingen Station who interacted with the girl, or her mother, acknowledged being aware she suffered from sickle cell anemia or had a history of congenital heart disease.”

Gonzalez said their organization’s legal investigation focuses on obtaining through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests all the files pertaining to Anadith’s custody. There has also been an independent autopsy, apart from the one performed by the Cameron County Medical Examiner & Coroner’s Office in Harlingen. The official report is still pending.

“Part of not trusting the CBP is the lack of transparency and accountability that we’ve seen in other cases,” Gonzalez said, noting the conditions in CBP custody often make people sick. “These places are extremely cold. They’re not conducive to treating vulnerable children with compromised immune systems.” 

In January, Dr. Paul H. Wise, a court-appointed monitor and pediatrics professor at Stanford University, said that child migrants held in medical isolation may be overlooked when Border Patrol stations get too crowded. There should be little hesitation in referring children to local hospitals, Wise said. The Harlingen station was overcrowded when Anadith was placed in medical isolation there, and officials did not transport her to a hospital until she became unresponsive after a seizure. She is not the first child to die in custody this year. Two other migrant children are known to have died in U.S. custody, both of them from Honduras.

Violations of CBP guidelines

Conditions in CBP custody are notoriously harsh and inadequate. Adults and children–including infants–are detained in “frigid holding cells, sometimes for days,” which violates the agency’s obligations and commitments, according to a 2018 Human Rights Watch report. CBP’s detention conditions have been consistently inhumane across presidential administrations, and President Joe Biden’s is no exception.

Anadith’s case grossly violated CBP’s own guidelines. By law, children should not be detained for longer than 72 hours. The immunocompromised girl and her family were held for nine days, despite their pleas for external medical care. CBP acknowledged that on the day of Anadith’s death, a nurse practitioner dismissed three or four requests from the child’s mother to call an ambulance or take her to a hospital.

Moreover, OPR also noted that since April, a surveillance video system was out of service at the Harlingen, Texas station, a violation of federal law that prevented evidence collection.  

Advocates also allege that anti-Black racism was a factor in the family’s mistreatment. In Honduras, Anadith’s family belongs to the Garifuna community, which is of African and Indigenous ancestry. Anti-Black bias would fit a well-established pattern in federal immigration custody. An October 2022 report from the immigration advocacy organizations the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, the UndocuBlack Network, and Freedom for Immigrants found that 28% of abuse complaints to an immigration detention hotline came from Black migrants, even though they account for only 6% of the total detained population.

“As Black people at the border, our humanity is always denied,” said Guerline Jozef, the executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, during Anadith’s June 16 funeral in New York City. “We honor Anadith’s life today and promise her that we are going to fight to get justice for her and for all the little girls and boys like her seeking safety and protection.” 

That fight could take years. Federal agencies have failed to release medical records to the Texas Legal Rights Project regarding other children’s in-custody deaths, including Carlos Gregorio Hernández Vásquez. The 16-year-old Guatemalan immigrant died in May 2019 while in CBP custody in Weslaco, Texas. According to a heavily redacted CBP report released almost three years after Hernández Vásquez’s death, agents lied about regularly checking on the boy. Falsifying federal records to impede an agency’s investigation is a crime, but it appears as if no one has been prosecuted for Hernández Vásquez’s death, according to an investigation by ProPublica.

“It has taken years to get some of those medical records to truly see what indeed happened that led to [Hernández Vásquez’] death,” Gonzalez said. “We expect potentially a similar struggle in [Anadith’s] case to obtain full medical records and full general logs and files from CBP.”

As an apparent consequence of Anadith’s death, earlier this month CBP’s chief medical officer, David Tarantino Jr., was temporarily reassigned. However, the agency has yet to announce any policy changes. Migrant families are still held for days and sometimes weeks in inadequate stations along the Southern border, putting the most vulnerable at risk. 

“We do not want this to ever happen again,” the Álvarez family said in a statement before the funeral earlier this month. “We will fight for justice.”

Maurizio Guerrero is a journalist based in New York City who covers immigration, social justice issues, Latin America, and the United Nations. Follow him on Twitter at @mauriziogro.