Family members of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody after reaching the U.S.-Mexico border said she did not lack food or water and was in good health when she was detained.
While U.S. officials chastised the father of Jakelin Caal Maquin for taking the girl on what can be a perilous trip through barren lands in Mexico, the pair mostly traveled by bus with about 40 other migrants, said Ruben Garcia, director of the nonprofit Annunciation House in El Paso, where the father was staying.
Jakelin and her father, Nery Gilberto Caal Cuz, were in a group of about 165 other asylum seekers when they arrived Dec. 6 at a U.S. Border Patrol station in New Mexico, Garcia said.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Friday on Fox News that Jakelin's death was "a very sad example of the dangers of this journey." She claimed the girl's family "chose to cross illegally."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection admonished asylum seekers Thursday in a statement on the death: "Please present yourselves at a port of entry and seek to enter legally and safely."
The pair reached the border near remote Lordsburg, New Mexico, and immediately sought asylum at a nearby U.S. Border Patrol station, Garcia told NBC News.
"Our law says that people have the right to approach our border and ask for protection," he said
Attorneys for Jakelin's family refuted the idea that Jakelin had been taken on a dangerous journey with little food and water.
"Jakelin's father took care of Jakelin — made sure she was fed and had sufficient water," they said Saturday in a statement. "She and her father sought asylum from border patrol as soon as they crossed the border."
Caal and Jakelin were trying to "escape from the dangerous situation in their home country," the attorneys said.
A number of prominent Democrats in Congress have called for a thorough investigation, and Caal said he would "assist," according to the statement.
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro tweeted that Congress' Hispanic Caucus planned to a lead a delegation Tuesday to the U.S. Border Patrol station in Lordsburg, New Mexico, to investigate the circumstances of Jakelin's death.
Garcia said Jakelin's mother is in Guatemala, and the family speaks an indigenous language first and Spanish second. Yet Caal was made to sign forms by the CBP in English, he said.
Officials said the girl waited about 90 minutes to receive medical attention from the time her father reported her ill.