Apprehensions of unaccompanied alien children (UACs) and families at the U.S. Southern border are down from last spring, and this is due in part to an increase in border security at Mexico’s southern border. This increase in Mexican immigration enforcement is partially funded and encouraged by the United States, and it is not clear that the humanitarian rights of the children are respected in this process. In order to avoid violating the international principle of non-refoulement, the response of all regional governments to the increase in migration from the Northern Triangle needs to ensure that migrants are properly screened for humanitarian protections. Due to the nature of Mexico as a transit country and the United States’ continued financial support and political encouragement of Mexican immigration enforcement, the United States has a vested interest in ensuring that the enforcement meets humanitarian protection standards.
In July of 2014, the Mexican government announced its Southern Border Plan, which focuses on ensuring the protections of migrants but in practice resulted in a crack down on traditional migrant routes and a sharp increase in deportations from Mexico. According to the Migration Policy Institute, migrants report an “increased presence of immigration officials in pickup trucks patrolling the roads and bus stations en route to the train line. Raids on hotels and restaurants where migrants shelter in traditional cities have occurred. And immigration agents, in raids supported by federal police and the military, are targeting the trains, removing migrants from the train cars and detaining them.” The companies that run the cargo trains whose roofs migrants travel on (referred to as “La Bestia”) are also working with the Mexican government to increase train speed in order to prevent migrants from riding on top of the trains – a very common form of transportation for migrants from the Northern Triangle, including UACs.
Mexico’s increase in enforcement includes an increase in deportations of UACs. Deportations from Mexico to the Northern Triangle countries increased significantly over the course of 2014 and this trend has continued into 2015. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Mexican government, Mexico deported 3,819 unaccompanied minors from Central America during the first five months of FY 2015 – a 56% increase over the same period from FY 2014.
How this is problematic is in a possible failure to adequately screen these children for humanitarian protections. According to Mexican news sites and think tanks cited in the LA Times, these policy shifts have “…amounted to a manhut that has abused migrants and stranded more in detention.” A report by the Human Rights Institute at Georgetown Law School, released in April, found that while “Mexican officials are supposed to screen unaccompanied children for international protection needs, they often fail to meet this responsibility.” The report also found that the conditions of the detention for children worked as deterrent for accessing asylum and that the Mexican government is failing to consistently inform children of their rights or screen them for international protection eligibility. Without these initiatives, the report argued, “current practices place a burden on migrant children to investigate the law and procedures and affirmatively apply for asylum.”
The relationship between the United States and Mexico’s border security programs is longstanding. Part of the Mexican government’s southern border security plan is funded by the United States through the Mérida Initiative and as of October 2014, about $1.3 billion dollars in U.S. assistance went to Mexico through this initiative. The U.S. government has also historically supported Mexico’s border security efforts through donated helicopters, patrol boats, intelligence sharing, and “training on interdictions, operations of checkpoints, and capacity building” by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The United States also funds “biometric kiosks and training for Mexican military forces involved in border security operations.”
What is going on in the United States regarding unaccompanied minors is far from perfect. If the United States as a country is going to, in the words of President Obama, “very much appreciate Mexico’s efforts in addressing the unaccompanied children who we saw spiking during the summer” and partially fund its border security measures, it is important that the U.S. also communicate the value of screening for humanitarian relief. This is a value that can’t just be communicated through words – but modeled through deeds as well – something that the U.S. is also falling short of. As a region, we need to collectively respond in a manner that reflects the humanitarian needs of the situation – and not simply work together to keep migrant children out of the United States.
Some of the text in this post is adapted from work the author did for the American Immigration Council’s “A Guide to Children Arriving at the Border: Laws, Policies, and Responses.”