Toddler dies in US on a Texas migrant bus going to Chicago

The 3-year-old was being transported as part of a controversial border control program at US-Mexico border known as Operation Lone Star.

A child sleeps on the shoulder of a woman as they prepare to board a bus to San Antonio moments after a group of migrants, many from Haiti, were released from custody upon crossing the Texas-Mexico border
At least four refugee children have died this year in federal custody [File: Julio Cortez/AP]

A 3-year-old child riding one of Texas’ migrant buses has died while on the way to Chicago, officials have said, the first time the state has announced a death since it began shuttling thousands of refugees and migrants from the US-Mexico border last year.

Texas authorities confirmed a child’s death in a statement on Friday but did not say where the child was from or why they became ill. CBS News reported that she was a girl from Venezuela.

“Every loss of life is a tragedy,” the Texas Division of Emergency Management said in a statement. “Once the child presented with health concerns, the bus pulled over and security personnel on board called 9-1-1 for emergency attention.”

The child received treatment from paramedics and later died at a hospital, according to the agency. All passengers had their temperature taken and were asked if they had any medical conditions.

The bus departed from the Texas border city of Brownsville and was headed to Chicago. It was part of a controversial migrant busing program sponsored by Republican Governor Greg Abbott, which transfers migrants and refugees from Texas to Democratic-run cities in other states.

Texas has bused more than 30,000 refugees to Democratic-controlled cities across the US since last year as part of Abbott’s sprawling mission on the border, called Operation Lone Star.

The operation has come under a burst of new scrutiny in recent months over additional hardline measures such as floating barriers authorised by the governor in the name of deterring asylum seekers from crossing from Mexico.

The Illinois Department of Public Health said the child died on Thursday in Marion County, in the southern part of that state.

Illinois officials said in a statement they were working with health officials, state police and federal authorities “to the fullest extent possible to get answers in this tragic situation”.

While the cause of the death is not known, much of the southern United States has witnessed one of the worst heatwaves on record set in across this summer.

Summer temperatures can climb to 43.3 degrees Celsius (110 degrees Fahrenheit) in Texas’ sparsely populated ranchlands.

US Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat whose district includes the Texas border, said he had not been briefed on details of the child’s death. Still, he criticised Abbott, saying the governor should be working more with the federal government on border security.

“You can’t use the migrants as political pawns. You still got to be accountable to taking care of them, especially if you’re transporting kids,” Cullear said.

Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze referred questions on Friday night about the child’s death to the state’s emergency management agency, which has operated the bus program since it launched in 2022.

On Thursday, Abbott freshly touted the bus program on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, posting: “We will continue busing migrants to sanctuary cities until Biden does his job and secures the border.”

Under Texas’s bus program, the state says refugees and migrants sign consent waivers and agree on the destinations where they’re headed. Texas officials say the buses are stocked with food and water and that travellers are allowed to get off early at stops before the destination city.

Missing water

Authorities and activists in South Texas this week found water that a human rights group had strategically placed for wayward refugees and migrants travelling on foot had vanished.

Ruben Garza, an investigator with the Jim Hogg Sheriff’s Office, said a bottle of water could make the difference between life and death.

“We don’t have the luxury of losing time in what we do,” he said as he recalled helping locate a missing refugee man who became overheated in the brush, called for help but died just moments after his rescue.

The exact number of those who die while walking the US-Mexico border are difficult to determine because deaths often go unreported. The UN International Organization for Migration estimates almost 3,000 refugees and migrants have died crossing from Mexico to the US by drowning in Rio Grande, or because of lack of shelter, food or water.

At least four migrant children have died this year in federal custody. That includes an 8-year-old girl from Panama who died in May and had arrived with a heart condition and sickle cell anaemia. Last month, an independent report found that Border Patrol does not have protocols for assessing the medical needs of children with preexisting conditions.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies