Two migrant children have died in US custody in a month – there must be no more

These individual tragedies cannot be separated from a hostile immigration system that excludes and discourages those in genuine need

A girl from Honduras waits for a present given by a nongovernmental organization outside an empty warehouse used as a shelter set up for migrants in downtown Tijuana, Mexico, Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2018. Critics, including former allies and some of the migrants themselves, say Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a group of activists escorting the caravan called in English, "People Without Borders," downplayed the dangers of Central Americans' treks toward the United States, especially for families and small children, and misled the participants about how long they would have to wait on the Mexican side to apply for asylum. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
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At a gathering of supporters last December, President Donald Trump announced: "We can say Merry Christmas again." It was telling that, rather than drawing attention to traditional messages of peace and hope, Mr Trump saw the festive period as something to weaponise; a golden opportunity for a dogwhistle to the embittered section of white America that forms his base. Twelve months later, how little regard Mr Trump has for ideas of tolerance and goodwill has now been even more starkly illustrated.

On Christmas morning, when millions of children were opening presents with their loved ones, Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, an eight-year-old Guatemalan boy who was part of the so-called migrant caravan, died in US custody after an attempt to cross the border from Mexico with his father. For such a young life to be lost would be a tragedy in isolation and at any time of year. However, this is the second such case this month. On December 3, seven-year-old Jakelin Caal, also from Guatemala, died hours after having been detained, causing an international outcry.

Rather than considering the desperation that drives thousands of people to make the arduous journey north from nations such as Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, Mr Trump and his Republican colleagues have resolved to keep every migrant on the Mexican side of the border – often in crime ridden frontier towns where rape, sexual assault and violence are endemic – until lengthy court proceedings have decided their cases. Those who do attempt to cross are detained, separated from their families and provided with only the most basic amenities. Deaths such as those of Caal and Alonzo-Gomez may be presented as dreadful accidents, but they form part of a wider pattern. More than 70 people have died in US government holding centres since 2010. It is impossible to separate these individual tragedies from a hostile immigration system, designed to discourage migrants. That America – a nation built on successive waves of immigration – can now turn its back so completely on those in need is deeply regrettable. That it is willing to do so at the cost of children’s lives is a disgrace.