EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Mexico by far remains the top country of origin when it comes to immigrants living in the United States. Twenty-five percent of all immigrants are from Mexico compared to 8 percent for all Central America, according to an August 2020 Pew Research Center report.
Yet when unaccompanied minors try to cross into the United States to join family members, being from Mexico is a handicap in the eyes of the law, legal experts and migrant advocates say.
Hundreds of Mexican children in the El Paso-Juarez area and likely thousands border-wide were expelled by U.S. immigration authorities to Mexico during the first three months of 2021. During the same period, thousands of unaccompanied Central American minors were placed in Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) approved facilities prior to being released to family members in the United States.
“Unfortunately, under our current protection laws, minors from Mexico and Canada aren’t treated with the same level of protection as minors from non-contiguous countries,” said Lindsay Toczylowski, a social justice lawyer with Immigrant Defenders in California. “This is certainly a gap in our protection to unaccompanied minors and is one of the reasons why we are calling for the entire protection system to be re-imagined with a true child welfare focus.”
Two statutes and a legal settlement directly influence the administrative processing of unaccompanied minors, according to the Congressional Research Service. Those include the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and the Flores Settlement Agreement of 1997.
“The reason we can’t return unaccompanied children is because of the trafficking protection,” said Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant and Refugee Center. “You can’t send them back to a country that is not their own. Mexican children aren’t covered under this act.”
She said the practice of repatriating Mexican children precedes the Biden and Trump administrations. “They repatriate Mexican minors always,” Rivas said. “There are few exceptional circumstances in which the children may go into ORR custody, but it’s rare.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection last week sent Border Report a statement saying Mexican unaccompanied minors “receive an interview by a Mexican consulate official and their return to Mexico is coordinated with the Instituto Nacional de Migracion (INM).”
The INM takes the children to the local DIF — often characterized as Mexico’s child protective agency — which is supposed to reunite them with their family.
However, DIFs are locally run and often exhibit “horrific” shortcomings, said Jorge Vaquez Campbell, a long-time Juarez immigration lawyer.
“Children’s installations in Chihuahua are excellent in terms of attention and cleanliness. Children are treated with a lot of respect. But installations, say, in Tamaulipas (state), are a horror,” he said. “They’re dirty, they don’t even mop the floors. The children only get two meals and sleep on the floor.”
Most Mexican unaccompanied children crossing the border come from poor communities in Southern Mexico. As such, DIF officials in border cities have a hard time locating their relatives, quashing the narrative of swift family reunification once returned to Mexico. “If they can’t find their relatives, they keep them in shelters. There are kids who have been in DIF custody for six months to a year,” Vazquez said.
The veteran immigration lawyer said up to 80 percent of Mexican unaccompanied minors headed north have family members in the United States. U.S. officials have told Border Report that almost half of the unaccompanied migrant children from the Northern Triangle of Central America have a parent in the United States and up to 85 percent have another type of family member there.
Most Mexican unaccompanied minors are between the ages of 14 and 17 and it’s rare to see younger kids, Vazquez said.
“Mexicans are very family-oriented … we try to be responsible with our children, not expose them to too much risk. This comes from our church upbringing and the way we were raised. People in other countries may think differently,” he said, referring to well-publicized incidents in which very small children from Central and South America have been abandoned by smugglers on the way to relatives in the United States.
Vazquez said Mexico has “a legal and moral obligation” under binational accords to receive its repatriated minors. “It comes down to not keeping your neighbors’ kids under your roof, when it comes to the U.S. and Mexico,” he said.
Migrant advocates in the United States wonder if nationality alone is influencing the expulsion of Mexican children.
“(Federal officials) are supposed to do a screening for protection issues before returning these kids to their country, but this is routinely not done or is done by (officers) not prepared to make such determination. As a result, undoubtedly thousands of Mexican minors who may have protection claims are expelled back to Mexico, and it’s definitely a gap” in the system, Toczylowski said.
Rivas of El Paso agreed the issue is worth a second look.
“I think we can reexamine how we treat Mexican children under the law and make sure there are sufficient protections because, while we send back the majority of children, we’re sending them back to a child protective services in Mexico and we can’t be certain that these children are actually being protected,” Rivas said.