WASHINGTON - Yazmin Juarez said she fled Guatemala last year to seek a better life in the U.S. with her baby daughter. But Juarez said 19-month-old Mariee died after developing a viral respiratory infection during three weeks of detention, despite hospital treatment after her release.
"We made this journey because we feared for our lives," Juarez told the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on civil rights through an interpreter. "Instead, I watched my baby girl die slowly and painfully before her second birthday."
Her story appeared to strike an emotional chord with lawmakers from both parties. Six migrant children have died in federal detention since December. An unprecedented flow of migrants from Central American roiled Congress with debate over humanitarian aid, border security and asylum standards.
Mike Pence to visit border: Aide says VP wants to counter 'absurd' claims migrant detention centers
'This should never happen anywhere': United Nations human rights chief weighs in on detention centers
"Your story has broken the heart of America," said the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md. "But your courage has given us a second chance to get it right."
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, called for a consensus on border security and asylum laws. He noted that Customs and Border Protection had rescued 3,000 people this year despite how thin its resources are stretched.
"I cannot possibly imagine what you have gone through," Roy said. "We have a broken immigration system and must act quickly."
Juarez filed a wrongful-death claim against the government. She has been told by her lawyers not to discuss her reasons for fleeing Guatemala. But she described in horrific detail what happened with her daughter.
After seeking asylum at the border, Juarez said she and Mariee spent several days with Customs and Border Protection in a frigid cell nicknamed "the ice box," sleeping on a concrete floor with 30 people in the room.
Mother and daughter were then transferred to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Dilley, Texas. Within a week surrounded by sick children, Mariee began coughing and sneezing, Juarez said. The diagnosis after waiting in lines for medical care was a respiratory infection treated with Tylenol and honey for the cough.
The next day, Mariee spiked a 104-degree fever and suffered diarrhea and vomiting, Juarez said. Then, more lines for care. Mariee was prescribed antibiotics, but Juarez said she begged for a deeper examination as her daughter's weight melted away. She was later given Pedialyte and Vicks VapoRub, but Mariee wouldn't eat or sleep, Juarez said.
"It was very difficult to see her suffering," Juarez said, a framed picture of her daughter sitting on the witness table next to her.
After the pair was released from detention, Juarez said she brought Mariee to a hospital, the first of three they eventually visited. Mariee was diagnosed with a viral lung infection and transferred to another hospital where Juarez said she was poked and prodded for six weeks before eventually being put on a ventilator.
"I couldn't hold her or hug her when she asked for her mother," Juarez said through tears and occasional sniffles. "As a mother, I wished that I could have taken her place."
Mariee died on the day celebrated in Guatemala as Mother's Day, May 10, 2018. Juarez left the hospital with a sheet of paper holding Mariee's handprints in pink paint, which the nurses had made for the holiday.
"It was the only thing that I had left," Juarez said, wiping her eyes. "The nurses had given it to me as a Mother's Day gift."
Juarez said she came to the U.S. for a better future - to work, to study and to learn. She chose to testify to educate lawmakers, to improve conditions in detention facilities for children described as "angels" treated like "animals."
"I'm here today because I want to put an end to this," Juarez said. "It is very hard to see so many children and for none of them to be my daughter, and to think that I will never see her again or hug her or enjoy being with her or tell her just how much I love her.
"It's like they tore out a piece of my heart, like they tore out my soul," Juarez.
More about the federal detention of children along the border:
Doctors share migrant children's haunting drawings: 'These children coming into our country need a voice'
The stuff of nightmares: Inside the migrant detention center in Clint, Texas
Government watchdog photos show dangerous conditions at Border Patrol sites for migrants
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'They tore out a piece of my heart': Migrant mother describes toddler's illness, death