The mother of a Honduran migrant teen who died at the Safety Harbor facility says he had epilepsy but was not seriously ill

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — The mother of a 17-year-old Honduran migrant who died in US custody said Saturday her son had epilepsy but showed no signs of a serious illness before leaving for the United States.

The death of Ángel Eduardo Maradiaga Espinoza in a detention center in Safety Harbor, Fla. on Wednesday underscored concerns about a strained immigration system as the Biden administration lifts asylum restrictions known as Title 42.

His mother, Norma Saraí Espinoza Maradiaga, said that her son had suffered from epilepsy since childhood, but his seizures were short-lived and not severe.

“He had epilepsy, but it wasn’t a disease that threatened him because he’d had it since he was eight,” she said. “The longest duration of a seizure was less than a minute. It seemed like it only hit him a little.”

Espinoza Maradiaga told The Associated Press in a phone interview on Friday that Ángel Eduardo left his hometown of Olanchito on April 25. He crossed the U.S.-Mexico border a few days later and on May 5 was referred to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which operates longer-term facilities for minors who cross the border without parents.

The same day he spoke to his mother for the last time, she said.

“He told me he was at an animal shelter and not to worry because he was in the best of hands,” she said. “We only spoke for two minutes. I said goodbye to him and wished him well.”

Espinoza Maradiaga said she learned of her son’s death first from a friend of his in the refugee home and then from a US official, who corroborated the friend’s account.

“I want to clarify the true cause of my son’s death,” she said.

“Nobody tells me anything. The agony is killing me,” she added. “They say they are waiting for the autopsy results and will not give me any other answer.”

There was no immediate cause of death, no evidence of illness or medical treatment.

Ángel Eduardo had studied until eighth grade before leaving school to work, his mother said on Saturday. Most recently he worked as a mechanic’s assistant. He has been a standout soccer player in his hometown in northern Honduras since he was seven, she said.

The teenager was hoping to be reunited with his father, who left Honduras for the United States years ago, and earn money to support her and two younger siblings who are still in Honduras, his mother said.

She said he went to the United States with her consent and with financial support from his father.

“From the age of 10 he wanted to live the American dream, see his father and have a better life,” she said. “His idea was to help me. He told me that once he was in the United States, he would change my life.”

The Department of Health and Human Services issued its condolences in a statement on Friday, saying a review of health records was underway and a coroner was examining the death.

Title 42 asylum restrictions expired Thursday, and President Joe Biden’s administration introduced new restrictions on cross-border commuters beginning Friday. Tens of thousands of people attempted to cross the US-Mexico border over the past few weeks before the expiry of Title 42, After that, US officials expelled many people but made exceptions for others, including unaccompanied minors.

This was the first known death of a child immigrant detained during the Biden administration. At least six young people have died in US custody during the Trump administration, which at times held thousands of children in excess of the system’s capacity.

HHS operates long-term facilities to hold minors crossing the border without parents until they can be placed with a sponsor. HHS facilities generally have beds and school and other activities for minors, in contrast to Border Patrol stations and detention centers where inmates sometimes sleep in cells on the floor.

Advocates opposed to the detention of immigrant children say HHS facilities are not equipped to hold them for weeks or months, which sometimes happens.

More than 8,600 minors are currently in custody at HHS. This number could increase sharply in the coming weeks due to changing border policies, as well as sharply increasing migration trends in the Western Hemisphere and the traditional increase in spring and summer border crossings.

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