Earlier this year, I sat in an immigration office in Nogales, Mexico, surrounded by children who had just been deported from the United States. All of the children I spoke with, ranging in age from 11 to 17 years old, traveled to the United States alone before U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested them. They spoke of being cold, hungry, and afraid while in American detention cells.
They were told to sign a form so they could be released, but none knew what it was. Jesus, a 16-year-old Mexican child, said, "They just put [the form] in our face and said ‘sign.' They wouldn't give us any information." The kids seemed stunned and still terrified, but they had already lost their chance to be heard in the United States.
A 2008 law, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, provides that an unaccompanied Mexican child can only be repatriated to Mexico if she is not in danger there and has the capacity to choose to return. Otherwise, she must at least be given a hearing before a judge. In practice, however, the majority of Mexican children arriving alone are deported from the United States, often without anyone bothering to determine (as required by law) if turning them away would place them in serious danger. These screenings are the sole safeguard for many kids seeking help, but too often they don't happen at all.
Now some in Washington are suggesting that we expand this process to include unaccompanied kids fleeing violence in Central America – the same failed procedures that too often place Mexican children back into harm's way. But this would condemn even more children to danger.
The UNHCR interviewed 102 unaccompanied Mexican children and found that 64 percent had potential international protection needs, based, for example, on gang or cartel violence. According to a recent Refugees International report, violent activities in Mexico are at "their highest levels in more than 15 years." Children, in particular, are targets for kidnapping, assassination, extortion, and disappearances. Yet kids fleeing this violence are ignored and ejected at our border.
The ACLU interviewed 13 children in Mexico but only one, Hector, said he was asked any questions about his fear of returning to Mexico or if he wanted to see a judge. Hector recalls: "I asked if there was any benefit and the [officer] said, ‘No, there is probably no benefit. You just crossed through the desert so you're going to be deported.'"
This inadequate system should be reformed to better protect kids, not expanded to deny more kids their rights.