U.S. is turning back Mexican migrant children without crucial screening, report says

A boy lies on a bunk bed looking at his phone
A boy relaxes on a bunk bed at the YMCA Home for Migrant Youth in Tijuana.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

U.S. border officials are returning unaccompanied Mexican children to Mexico without giving them adequate screenings to assess their protection needs, according to a report published Friday.

The report from Amnesty International outlines the way that U.S. border policy treats children from Mexico differently from those of other nationalities. Instead of turning the children over to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, as happens with children of other nationalities, so that they can have their cases heard by immigration judges, U.S. border officials almost always send Mexican minors quickly back south — often in a matter of hours.

Between November and April, about 95% of Mexican children caught by the Border Patrol were repatriated without being handed over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, according to the report.


While the law that requires unaccompanied children to be placed in ORR custody includes an exception for children from contiguous countries, that law also requires that Mexican children be screened for potential human trafficking as well as potential asylum claims before they can be repatriated. But according to Brian Griffey, a researcher with Amnesty International, numerous interviews conducted by researchers for the report suggested that these screenings do not happen to the extent required by law.

“It’s something that we heard again and again from Mexican officials, from shelter managers in the north of Mexico and from migrant kids themselves, that these Border Patrol agents and CBP [Customs and Border Protection] officials were not seriously assessing what harm these kids could face if returned,” Griffey said. “And you know it’s bad when Mexican officials are telling us that the U.S. is sending back Mexican kids to danger.”

Newly released data show that migrants were stopped 180,034 times across the southern border in May, nearly eight times the total a year ago.

June 10, 2021

The Department of Homeland Security, which includes Customs and Border Protection and the Border Patrol, did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

Sending Mexican children back to Mexico does not mean that they return home to their families, Griffey said. Mexican child protection specialists told Amnesty International researchers that many children have had to go into hiding after being repatriated.

“This is not going to solve any problem. This is not going to put kids back in care of parents in safety,” Griffey said. “This is only going to make children make this dangerous journey again.”

Griffey said he asked the acting deputy patrol chief of the San Diego sector of the Border Patrol about the policy for Mexican children.


“Now it’s really pretty simple: If they are ‘other than Mexican’ and they are under the age of 18, then we hold them and turn them over to ORR,” the San Diego agent is quoted in the report as responding during the interview. “If they are Mexican, then we hold them, we contact the Mexican consulate or the Mexican immigration services, they attempt to locate their family in Mexico, and then we turn them over to the Mexican immigration service so that they can reunite them down in Mexico. That’s actually pretty simple.”

When asked about the report, the San Diego Border Patrol sector directed the Union-Tribune to a CBP website that discusses human trafficking and does not include specific information about screenings of unaccompanied children. The site says that the Department of Homeland Security is focusing on a public awareness campaign about human trafficking.

A spokesman for the Border Patrol sector was unable to provide details on the number of Mexican children apprehended in the area and turned over to ORR. The Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to a request for that information in time for publication.

The Mexican Consulate in San Diego sends staff twice a day to interview minors in Border Patrol stations before they are repatriated, according to spokesman Gaspar Orozco Rios. Since January, the team has also interviewed 50 children already in ORR custody in the San Diego area, he said.

Authorities say the men have been charged in connection with a ring that seized at least six people who were trying to enter the U.S. illegally.

June 8, 2021

Overall, Border Patrol agents in the San Diego sector have apprehended slightly fewer than 1,700 Mexican children so far this fiscal year, which began in October. That’s about 16% of the roughly 10,400 apprehensions of Mexican children along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.

Erika Pinheiro, litigation and policy director for Al Otro Lado, a legal services organization that supports asylum seekers in Tijuana, said that Mexican children began to get turned away from the U.S. border in large numbers after more Central American children began arriving in the 2010s.


“The contiguous-country provision does require CBP to accept a Mexican child who is fleeing persecution, at risk of being trafficked, or is unable to articulate their reasons for coming,” Pinheiro said. “In practice, Mexican children falling squarely within these vulnerability categories are regularly returned to Mexico before they have a chance to consult with an attorney or advocate.”

Her organization has been escorting migrant children to ports of entry for years to insist that they be processed.

“Given the overall rise in violence attributed to organized crime and the inability of the Mexican state to maintain full territorial control, Mexican children are particularly at-risk,” Pinheiro said. “We have seen multiple examples of cartels recruiting children and adolescents for a variety of reasons, as well as children being targeted for kidnapping for ransom, trafficking or to retaliate against a parent, sibling or family member.”

And while the Biden administration has scrambled to set up extra facilities to house children arriving from Central American countries and elsewhere — including at the San Diego Convention Center — workers at those emergency intake facilities told Amnesty International that they have seen few, if any, Mexican children come through their doors.

Daily reports about the numbers of children in CBP and ORR custody sent to reporters when the facilities began to open include an important footnote on the CBP count.

“This number does not include children from Mexico, most of whom will be repatriated and will not remain in CBP custody,” each report says at the bottom.


For Griffey, that point is a big caveat for the Biden administration’s promise to process unaccompanied children as part of its reversal of harsh Trump administration policies.

“While Biden has said we’re not leaving kids stuck on the other side of the Rio Grande, they have a big asterisk literally and figuratively for these Mexican kids,” Griffey said. “The policy is send them back — so that’s alarming.”

He and his team also found that Mexican officials similarly send Central American children back to danger in their home countries, despite a United Nations official estimating that 90% of those children are in need of protection.