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EDITORIAL: America is better than a border policy that allows children to die

Claudia Maquin, 27, shows a photo of her daughter, Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin in Raxruha, Guatemala, on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018. The 7-year-old girl died in a Texas hospital, two days after being taken into custody by border patrol agents in a remote stretch of New Mexico desert. | AP Photo/Oliver de Ros

There is no defending a border security policy that allows children to die.

We don’t yet know why an 8-year-old boy from Guatemala, Felipe Gomez Alonzo, died on Christmas Eve while in the custody of the U.S. border police. But we know he was moved among at least four detention centers in his last six days where the level of care was nothing we would wish for our own children, healthy or ill.

EDITORIAL

Processing centers on the United States border with Mexico are known as “hieleras,” Spanish for “iceboxes,” because they are cold inside and the lights are always on and the only covers are Mylar sheets.

We also don’t yet know why a 7-year-old girl from Guatemala, Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin, died in detention two weeks earlier. But we know Jakelin was held first at a facility that did not even have running water. And we know her father was asked to sign a form, stating that Jakelin was in good health, that was in English — and he may not have understood what it said.

Jakelin was being taken by bus to another detention center when her temperature spiked to 105.7 degrees. She died in an El Paso, Texas, hospital the next day.

What is going on here?

If you ask Kirstjen M. Nielsen, the Trump administration’s secretary for homeland security, the blame lies with the refugees seeking entry into the United States, and with Americans who want “open borders.”

“Our system has been pushed to a breaking point by those who seek open borders,” Nielsen said Wednesday.

But if you ask us, that’s classic Trumpian misdirection. Most Americans do not favor open borders. They just wish the Trump administration would stop being stupid and cruel about border security, understanding that it’s not a matter of pulling up a drawbridge. They wish the administration would stop treating refugees, who are fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries, like diseased-ridden criminals and gold diggers.

Maybe then Felipe and Jakelin would have been treated more like children and less like burdens.

The problem is growing only worse. Last month, border agents detained 5,283 children unaccompanied by a parent and 25,172 “family units” — parents and children together. Both figures were highs for the year. Children who arrive unaccompanied are supposed to go to longer-term facilities operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But, the Associated Press reports, most of those facilities are maxed out, each holding more than 100 kids.

Now the border police — U.S. Customs and Border Protection — won’t even say how many children are being held, or reveal the results of health checks done on those children in the wake of the deaths of Felipe and Jakelin.

Trump’s response to all foreign policy challenges is to hunker down in our American castle. Walls are good and alliances are for suckers. He’s holding the federal budget hostage to that wall.

Last week, Trump announced that about half of the U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan soon will be withdrawn, ignoring the sage advice of experts who say that keeping a lid on terrorists over there sure beats waiting for them to come over here.

In the same way, Trump’s response to the problem of refugees clamoring for entry at the southern border has been to ignore root causes and potential diplomatic solutions.

Nielsen says the best American response to the border crisis is to let parents “who bring their children on a dangerous illegal journey” face the “consequences for their actions.” But a more effective long-term approach, more in keeping with our nation’s humanitarian values, would be to reach out with a helping hand to the three Latin American countries from which the refugees are fleeing — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

As the columnist Georgie Ann Geyer wrote in the Sun-Times last month, the heart of the refugee problem is political injustice in those three countries, making life for the masses unstable and miserable. But “creative American policies” that support economic development and land reform, such as President John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, could bring about political reform.

“These are tiny countries where Washington has long had great influence, which it has too often used against, instead of for, political reform,” Geyer wrote.

In the meantime, the Trump administration’s handling of refugees has only added to their suffering. The administration has begun a process called “metering,” in which only a small and limited number of refugees are processed at legal ports of entry each day. This has led to interminably long lines, not surprisingly, and people — many with children — drifting off to sneak into the country elsewhere, often in remote and dangerous areas.

Desperate people become only more desperate.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.