A new report from Amnesty International has found that the Biden administration has rapidly expelled thousands of unaccompanied Mexican migrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border without adequately conducting screenings to determine whether they might qualify for protection in the U.S.
The report, published Friday, accuses the Biden administration of circumventing an anti-trafficking law to rapidly expel unaccompanied minors back to Mexico, while at the same time allowing unaccompanied minors from Central America and other countries to seek refuge in the U.S.
The report comes on the heels of Vice President Kamala Harris’s trip this weekto Guatemala and Mexico, where she discussed stemming migration from Central America and urged Central American migrants not to come to the U.S.-Mexico border.
In March, Biden vowed to stop expelling unaccompanied minors from the United States. “The only people we’re not going to let be left sitting there on the other side of the Rio Grande by themselves with no help are children,” he said.
But Mexican children are the exception, according to the report.
The report claims the Biden administration is misusing an anti-trafficking law called the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act to “expeditiously repatriate” children from Mexico who cross into the United States. The anti-trafficking law lays out provisions for children from “contiguous countries”— countries bordering the United States, Mexico and Canada — which are different from provisions for migrant children from non-contiguous countries of origin.
When apprehended at the border, children from Mexico or Canada must be screened within 48 hours to determine if they have been trafficked or are at risk of being trafficked in their country of origin, whether they have a credible fear of returning to their country of origin, or whether they can make an independent decision to leave the country and surrender their immigration application, called “voluntary departure.”
“The most shocking thing that our report reveals about U.S. policy and practice is that over 95% of the unaccompanied Mexican children apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol are being summarily returned to Mexico without adequate screenings of the harm that they could face,” Brian Griffey, a regional researcher and adviser at Amnesty International who authored the report, told The Arizona Republic.
Griffey said U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, instead of child protection specialists, are interviewing unaccompanied Mexican children to determine if they are at risk of harm or if they’re victims of human trafficking. “If they’re neither, then they can give them the option to ‘voluntarily return,’” Griffey said. “So if you talk to border agents, they will frame these as voluntary returns, but it’s not very voluntary.”
Mexican children turned away by CBP after crossing border, report says
Unlike adult border-crossers, who remain in custody of the Department of Homeland Security, unaccompanied minors who cross into the United States are typically referred to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The children stay in ORR shelters while awaiting immigration proceedings that determine whether or not they can remain in the United States or must return to their home countries.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic began last March, Title 42, a public health rule restricting the processing of migrants detained at the border, went into effect. This meant that U.S. immigration officials began turning away the majority of migrants who arrived at the border. Last November, a federal judge blocked the application of Title 42 to unaccompanied migrant children, allowing them to enter the United States.
However, Amnesty International’s report claims that the exception doesn’t apply to Mexican children, who are expelled under the anti-trafficking law’s provision for contiguous countries.
“CBP is sidestepping the immigration proceedings, and just sending the kids back to Mexico but by making it a ‘voluntary return,’” Griffey said, adding that the report found that out of 100 children interviewed, approximately half said they were not asked about their fear of returning to their home country or whether they had been trafficked.
According to the report, on May 25, Customs and Border Protection told Amnesty International that it had conducted more than 10,000 repatriations of unaccompanied Mexican children stopped by the Border Patrol from last November to this April. “This compared to only 465 referrals of unaccompanied Mexican children to child protection specialists at ORR after apprehensions during the same period,” the report says.
The Biden administration has confirmed the use of this policy to deport Mexican children.
“The policy right now for Mexican unaccompanied minors is for them to be repatriated through that process,” said Vedant Patel, assistant White House press secretary and immigration adviser.
The report says in March 2020, the manager of a migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora —the Mexican border city across from Nogales, Arizona — claimed that Mexican authorities received and brought to the shelter “an average of five repatriated Mexican children per day, mostly Indigenous children from Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Guerrero.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona called the report’s findings “troubling.”
“The countless stories of the men, women, and children seeking safety and protection in our country — only for many to be turned away — clearly shows that the United States’ asylum system must change,” Marcela Taracena, the group’s communications director said in a written statement to The Republic. “We must build an asylum system that is humane and fair.”
Kids in Need of Defense, an unaccompanied children’s immigration defense organization, shared a similar sentiment.
“Unaccompanied children, regardless of where they are from, must be properly screened at the U.S.-Mexico border to ensure that those who have a fear of return or are at risk of trafficking have a fair chance access the process outlined in the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 that allows them to seek U.S. protection,” said Jennifer Podkul, vice president of policy and advocacy.
Podkul added that placing child welfare professionals in Customs and Border Protection facilities “would ensure that children alone are processed by child protection experts and therefore not returned to the danger and harm that they fled.”
Harris, Mayorkas work with Mexico to curb migration from Central America
Vice President Kamala Harris visited Guatemala and Mexico on her first overseas trip since her inauguration in January. The trip was to address the root causes of migration from the region to the United States. But her remarks at a Monday news conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei drew fire from advocates and elected officials on the left and right.
“I want to be clear to folks in the region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come,” Harris said.
Harris met Tuesday with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico City, where the two discussed immigration from the Northern Triangle — the region comprising El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala — to the United States via Mexico. They signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at curbing migration from the region.
On Monday, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas will travel to Mexico to hammer out the details of the plan with Mexican government officials, which Griffey, the author of the Amnesty International report, expects will perpetuate hostilities toward migrants.
“Essentially, Vice President Harris and the administration are promising a continuation of this misleading rhetoric that criminalizes migration and seeking asylum and seeks to legitimize unlawful pushing away of at-risk individuals back to harm,” he said.
Customs and Border Protection said its screening practices are consistent with the anti-trafficking law.
“In cases of suspected human trafficking or claims of fear, Border Patrol refers the unaccompanied child to the Department of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security Investigations, as appropriate,” a CBP spokesperson said in a written statement to The Republic. “In cases where there is no suspicion of human trafficking or claim of fear, unaccompanied children that are Mexican nationals are processed for voluntary return to Mexico. Unaccompanied children from non-contiguous countries are transferred to Health and Human Services consistent with the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.”
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