May 31, 2023

A 17-year-old migrant child from Honduras who arrived in the U.S. without a parent or guardian has died in government custody in Florida, officials said Friday, in what is believed to be the first such death in years. 

Enrique Reina, the Honduran secretary of foreign affairs, identified the child as Ángel Eduardo Maradiaga Espinoza and called for an “exhaustive investigation” into his death. Reina said the Espinoza was in Safety Harbor, Florida, a small city west of Tampa that has a shelter used to house unaccompanied children.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) acknowledged the death in a statement but provided few details about the circumstances.

“[The department] is deeply saddened by this tragic loss and our heart goes out to the family, with whom we are in touch,” the agency said. A U.S. official told CBS News there was “no altercation of any kind” involved in the death.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is a division of HHS, is responsible for housing and caring for migrant children who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border without legal guardians. Border officials are bound by federal law to transfer unaccompanied minors to ORR within 72 hours. The refugee office houses unaccompanied children in shelters and other facilities until they turn 18 or are claimed by a sponsor in the U.S.

The HHS statement noted that the ORR’s Division of Health for Unaccompanied Children is “reviewing all clinical details of this case, including all inpatient health care records” and said a medical examiner is conducting an investigation into the child’s death. The agency noted that children in ORR custody “have access to health care, legal services, translation services, and mental and behavioral health counselors and are able to connect with family through a phone call in a private area at a minimum of twice a week.”

As of Wednesday, 8,681 unaccompanied children were in the care of HHS, government figures show, and unaccompanied children spend an average of 29 days in ORR custody. In the last fiscal year, most of the minors referred to ORR — roughly 72% — were above the age of 14, and about 64% were boys. Unaccompanied children are typically matched with a sponsor, usually a relative, and released.

About 29% of children in ORR custody in fiscal year 2022 hailed from Honduras, like Espinoza. Nearly half came from Guatemala, and about 13% came from El Salvador.

News of Espinoza’s death comes as the U.S. implements strict new asylum and deportation policies meant to deter illegal migration following the expiration of Title 42, a pandemic-related restriction that expired at midnight on Thursday. Title 42 allowed border officials to quickly expel hundreds of thousands migrants without hearing their asylum claims, a policy that began in March 2020 under President Donald Trump.

Unaccompanied children were subject to expulsion under Title 42 until November 2020, when a federal judge put an end to the practice. Their exemption led thousands of children who had previously been expelled with their families to leave their loved ones in Mexico and attempt to claim asylum by themselves, a phenomenon that came to be known as “self-separation.” Government figures showed that more than 12,000 migrant children reentered U.S. border custody as unaccompanied minors after being expelled to Mexico in the year following the judge’s ruling.

Border Patrol officials encountered more than 152,000 unaccompanied minors in fiscal year 2022, and have encountered more than 70,000 since Oct. 1, 2022, according to government data.

Over an eight-month span in 2018 and 2019, six children died in U.S. custody or shortly after being released, including a 10-year-old girl who died while in the care of ORR. Her death was the first of a child in U.S. custody since 2010, officials said at the time.

Margaret Brennan contributed reporting.

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