When children come into the United States without a parent or guardian, the United States has some responsibility to figure out why they came, whether they are in a human-trafficking situation, and whether they would be in danger if they are returned to their native country. As a result, the law treats unaccompanied children differently than adult immigrants. Instead of being immediately sent back to their country, minors are put in deportation proceedings so that a judge will decide. Minors are supposed to be put in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours, where they are held in child-friendly detention facilities until they can be released to a family member who will take them to their immigration court dates.
All of these rights apply to “unaccompanied minors” who cross the Mexican border UNLESS the minor is Mexican. Why is it any different for Mexican children than children coming from Central America or some other part of the world?
According to the Mexican Foreign Ministry, 13,454 Mexican children were sent back to Mexico last year, most of them without ever going before an immigration judge. Whereas a child from another part of the world has an immigration judge determine his fate, a Mexican child’s fate is determined by a border patrol agency. This is because of an agreement between the United States and Mexico and implemented by local agreements along the border. According to the Women’s Refugee Commission, only about 10% of Mexican children are ever transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services custody. As a result, the border is a revolving door for Mexican teens that cross and are returned to Mexico multiple times without any understanding of their reasons for fleeing Mexico or their possibilities for staying legally in the United States.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 was supposed to address this issue by providing screenings of the Mexican children who cross the border. The Appleseed report Children of the Border: The Screening, Protection and Repatriation of Unaccompanied Mexican Minors found that the problem was who was doing the screenings, where and how they were being conducted. Uniformed, armed Border Patrol agents conduct screenings of Mexican children. The border patrol agents receive little or no training in how to interview traumatized children. The children are held in cold cells, they are not given much food, and they lack sufficient medical treatment. They are interviewed within sight and hearing of other adults (even the smugglers). It is extremely unlikely this situation will lead to a child disclosing abuse, prostitution, or a trafficking situation.
As a result, screenings are not filtering out Mexican children who might qualify for immigration benefits. Appleseed recommends that these screenings should be conducted instead by social workers, or at least the border patrol agents should have forms and guidance on how to interview children about sensitive issues. Not all Mexican children will or even should qualify to stay in the United States legally. However, every child should be properly screened before they are sent back to a possibly abusive or dangerous situation. All children deserve this protection, no matter what country they are from.