DHS Chief Says Sick Migrant Children Are Being 'Used as Pawns' to Get Into U.S. as Autopsy Finds Guatemalan Child Died of Flu

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testifies before the House Homeland Security Committee on border security on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., March 6. Nielsen appeared to accuse asylum seekers of using sick children as "pawns" to gain entry into the United States. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen appeared to accuse asylum seekers of using sick children "as pawns" to gain entry into the United States on Monday.

In an opinion piece for Fox News, Nielsen warned: "The situation at our southern border has gone from a crisis to near system-wide meltdown. As the president has declared—this is a national emergency.

"The system is breaking. It was not designed to handle the volume of vulnerable populations—especially families and children—who are arriving. The result is a humanitarian and security catastrophe."

Nielsen asserted that "Smugglers and traffickers are forcing people into inhumane conditions. Women are being sexually assaulted, and a majority of migrants report experiencing violence on the treacherous trek" from Central American countries to the U.S.

The DHS chief then claimed that "Children are arriving sicker than ever before and are being used as pawns to gain entry" into the U.S. "And we are seeing the spread of violent crime and drugs across our southern border as criminals exploit the chaos."

Nielsen's statements came the same day that authorities in Guatemala announced that Felipe Gomez Alonzo, the 8-year-old boy who died while in U.S. Border Patrol custody on Christmas Eve had died from the flu and a bacterial infection.

Gomez and his father, 47-year-old Agustin Gomez, had fled from their home village of Yalambojoch in hopes of a better life in the U.S. and crossed the border in El Paso, Texas, on December 18. The 8-year-old's father had said that his son was in good health when they were taken into custody that same day, but Gomez Alonzo later developed flu symptoms and was taken to a hospital, where he succumbed to the illness.

Gomez Alonzo was the second Guatemalan migrant child to die while in U.S. custody in December, with an autopsy released on Friday revealing that the other child, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin, who died on December 8, had also died from a bacterial infection.

Oscar Padilla, the Guatemalan consul in Phoenix, told The Associated Press that authorities had not been able to establish exactly when or where the two children became infected. "We do not know if it was in Mexico or in border custody. What we know is that the children left their homes healthy," Padilla said.

It is unclear where Nielsen's accusation that sick children were being "used as pawns" to gain entry into the U.S. comes from. In her opinion piece, she said "real action is needed—now."

"Our immigration facilities are out of capacity, and we cannot sacrifice our border security duties while responding to an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe," Nielsen said. "As a nation, we cannot stand for this."

The DHS chief said that is why the U.S. has made efforts to "hold the Northern Triangle countries"—Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—"accountable" by signing a regional accord with the U.S. signaling their commitment to do more to curb irregular migration to the American border.

Over the weekend, the State Department also announced that it would be carrying out a directive from President Donald Trump to end aid programs to the three Central American countries, despite repeated warnings that cutting aid wouls only create further instability.

Democrats have hit back against the president's plan, with Representative Joaquín Castro of Texas calling the move "short-sighted and flawed," while on Monday, Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, warned during a discussion on foreign policy at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, D.C. that "if we cut all this funding…I think it's going to make things tragically worse, not better."