• Sheet of paper Report

The United States and Mexico deporting thousands of unaccompanied migrant children into harm’s way

Mother sits with child
The US and Mexican governments are forcibly returning tens of thousands of unaccompanied children seeking safety to the countries they just fled, without adequate screenings or protection from the harms they may face upon return, Amnesty International said in the new report published today, Pushed into Harm’s Way.

As Mexican President López Obrador and US Vice President Harris met this week in Mexico City, they pledged to increase coordination on immigration enforcement across the region. In reality, that translates into expanding the interception and forced returns of thousands of unaccompanied children to potential harm in their countries of origin. Children account for one in three migrants and asylum-seekers in the region – including many who have been forced to cross separately from their asylum-seeking families, after being turned away by US border authorities.

“The Biden administration is summarily returning almost all unaccompanied Mexican children just hours after they seek safe haven, often without considering the risks they could face upon return. Likewise, Mexican authorities are deporting the vast majority of unaccompanied children from Central America to their home countries – often where they just fled threats or violence – even though most have family in the United States with whom they are trying to unite,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International. “These are dangerous and unconscionable policies. The United States and Mexico must stop denying unaccompanied children their universal human rights to seek asylum and to family unity, no matter where they’re from.”

United States forcibly returning almost all unaccompanied Mexican children

Since President Biden took office in January 2021, about 50,000 unaccompanied migrant children have crossed into the United States in search of safety – many of them separating from their families stuck in northern Mexico after being disallowed from requesting asylum at the US–Mexico border. According to US authorities, some 80 percent of those unaccompanied children are trying to unite with family members in the USA, and about 20 percent are from Mexico.

The Biden administration continues to immediately return almost all unaccompanied Mexican children, through the misuse of an anti-trafficking law that allows the USA to expeditiously repatriate children from Mexico or Canada. This is despite President Biden’s promise to halt turning away unaccompanied children, as he has stopped applying to unaccompanied children the Trump-era policy of rejecting all migrants and asylum-seekers at the US–Mexico border, based on a spurious public health order under “Title 42” of the US Code.

US law requires that the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency screen unaccompanied Mexican children before any such returns, in order to ensure they are not victims of trafficking or at risk of harm if returned. Yet lawyers, representatives of children’s shelters, and child-welfare authorities in Mexico told Amnesty International that the US still swiftly returns almost all unaccompanied Mexican children even when they are unsafe in Mexico and are seeking asylum in the USA.

In May 2021, White House assistant press secretary and immigration adviser Vedant Patel bluntly confirmed Biden’s policy to the media: “The policy right now for Mexican unaccompanied minors is for them to be repatriated.

Mexico forcibly returning most unaccompanied Central American children

Unaccompanied children from Central America have traveled with increasing frequency through Mexico to the USA since 2019, often to flee violence and reunite with families in the USA. In response, Mexican immigration authorities have shut down the southern border, and forcibly returned the vast majority of the children they apprehended – deporting 90 percent and 70 percent of Central American children taken into custody in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

In 2021, Mexican immigration authorities have launched major operations in the north and south of Mexico to intercept and repatriate unaccompanied children. After such interceptions, child-welfare authorities take custody of the children – often detaining them in closed shelters – and overwhelmingly determine that the “best interests” of the children are their forced returns to the countries of origin they were fleeing from.

Mexican child-protection authorities at the US–Mexico border told Amnesty International that Mexico continues to deport as many as 85 percent of Central American children in some localities. According to national statistics, Mexican authorities have reported deporting about half of the unaccompanied Central American children whom they have taken into custody nationwide so far in 2021. Yet, with the immigration status of many of the children yet to be resolved, deportation rates are likely to climb higher.

Since January 2021, Mexican law has required that children be held in child-welfare shelters instead of immigration detention facilities. Although it is a positive step to hold children in shelters instead of immigration detention facilities, these closed shelters have become overcrowded in northern Mexico, and processing times have increased from around 15 days to as long as four months. Children should not be detained, and if they are, it must be for the shortest time possible in conditions that meet their best interests.

Read more:

Pushed into Harm’s Way: Forced Returns of Unaccompanied Migrant Children to Danger by the USA and Mexico (Research, June 11, 2021)

Kamala Harris Should Work with Guatemalan and Mexican Leaders to Address the Root Causes of Displacement and Migration (News release, May 19, 2021)

Amnesty International urges Vice President Harris to Raise Human Rights Concerns on Upcoming trip to Guatemala and Mexico (Letter, May 17, 2021)

Infographics for the report and images are available here.

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