Mexico and the United States must stop sending children into harm’s way

By Erika Guevara Rosas

Only in his first few months in office, US President Joe Biden is already sending his top officials to Mexico. Last week, Vice President Kamala Harris visited Mexico on her first official trip abroad. Then came Alejandro Mayorkas, the Secretary of Homeland Security, to Mexico City on 14 and 15 June. 

In his first official travel outside of the United States, Mayorkas planned to “meet with his counterparts in the Government of Mexico on areas of mutual interest.” Tragically, these “areas of mutual interest” include the mass deportations of unaccompanied children into harm’s way. In a new report published before Mayorkas’s visit, Amnesty International revealed that the US and Mexican governments are both sending tens of thousands of unaccompanied migrant children back to their countries of origin without ensuring they can return safely. 

In the case of the United States, the Department of Homeland Security has returned over 95 percent of the unaccompanied Mexican children apprehended by the US Border Patrol from November 2020 to April 2021. That is more than 10,000 Mexican children, many of whom were fleeing violence or persecution in their home states and were trying to unite with their family members in the United States. 

Meanwhile, despite promising that his government would not do the United States’ “dirty work” when he campaigned for office, President López Obrador has militarized Mexico’s border regions to stop the families and children fleeing from violence and poverty in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” from reaching the United States.

In March 2021, the Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) launched major operations in both the north and south of Mexico to intercept and deport the thousands of unaccompanied Central American children still on their way to the United States. From 1 January  to 6 June, the INM forcibly returned 17,750 children to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The INM is also continuing to carry out major operations on the US–Mexico border, deporting nearly 1,000 migrants and asylum seekers from there to Central America in a single day in late May. 

This is not the first time the INM has forcibly returned tens of thousands of children to potential harm, and the scale remains shamefully high. Moreover, in many cases the authorities fail to ensure that the children can be safely returned without the risk of harm or persecution if sent back to Central America. In 2019, the INM forcibly returned more than 90 percent of unaccompanied children from the Northern Triangle to their countries of origin – 12,000 unaccompanied children in total. In 2020, even amidst decreased migration due to border closures during the pandemic, the INM still deported over 70 percent of unaccompanied Central American children back to the Northern Triangle. 

Under both Mexico and the United States’ national laws, their governments must respect children’s best interests and stop forcibly returning them to potential harm. In January 2021, Mexico took important steps to improve the treatment of unaccompanied Central American children – including by prohibiting their detention in INM facilities.

Nonetheless, according to a report by the System for the Comprehensive Protection of the Rights of Children and Adolescents (SIPINNA) in December 2020, Mexican authorities are often unaware of the rights of unaccompanied migrant children seeking refugee status, and their obligation to protect them, while state-level child protection offices (DIF) are understaffed to serve the protection needs of migrant children transiting through Mexico. The report also found that when Mexican authorities have apprehended and returned unaccompanied migrant children to their countries of origin, they have in some cases violated the best interests of the children and the international law prohibiting the return of anyone, regardless of their migration status, to serious harm. 

It is unconscionable that President López Obrador’s administration is sending children back into harm’s way, even while SIPINNA – a vital institution that is part of his government – warns that Mexican authorities are violating the law and the rights of children. 

President López Obrador must ensure adequate funding and training in the protection of children for the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR), DIF and SIPINNA, while halting the unnecessary deportations of unaccompanied migrant children who are seeking asylum at Mexico’s southern or northern borders. 

Instead of pushing these children into harm’s way, Mexico should provide them with access to asylum in Mexico, if necessary, or coordinate with US authorities to allow the safe and orderly passage of these children to the United States. Secretary Mayorkas himself says that more than 80 percent of the unaccompanied Central American children migrating through Mexico are trying to reach family members in the United States – and more than 40 percent have parents and legal guardians waiting to reunite with them.

Children have a right to safety and protection. Respecting their rights is not only the lawful thing to do, but also the morally correct thing to do.

Erika Guevara-Rosas is Americas director at Amnesty International

This article was originally published in La Silla Rota