We’ve Been Asking Mexico to Detain Migrant Kids for Us. Here’s What That Looks Like.

“People are crammed, it’s very hot, the food is terrible, and it’s dangerous,” one teen told researchers.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP

A new report by the Georgetown Law School’s Human Rights Institute found that Central American child migrants apprehended in southern Mexico over the past year have faced excessive stints in detention, often in poor conditions, deterring them from seeking asylum abroad.

The study, released Monday, concluded that Mexican immigration officials have failed to adequately screen children for international protection needs and did not inform them of their right to apply for asylum. “Unfortunately, the reality for most migrant children apprehended by immigration authorities in Mexico is characterized by the violation, rather than the protection, of human rights,” the report concludes.

The group of Georgetown researchers interviewed 65 accompanied and unaccompanied children, parents, government officials, aid workers, and people in the southern Mexican border city of Tapachula and Guatemala City.

As Mother Jones has reported extensively over the past two years, a recent rise in gang and gender-based violence, along with economic hardship at home, has prompted children and families to flee Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). While the number of kids crossing the US-Mexico border alone shot up to 68,541 in fiscal year 2014, estimates show that US Customs and Border Protection will apprehend only 37,000 child migrants in fiscal 2015. Some experts have suggested that the decrease can be attributed to stepped-up enforcement in Mexico, taxing an already flawed system of immigration detention there.

Here’s what else the report found:  

  • Child migrants were kept at Mexico’s immigration stations and shelters in Tapachula for “long, unpredictable periods of times,” even though Mexican law requires unaccompanied children to be immediately transferred to federal, state, or local shelters. Of the 6,718 children detained at Tapachula’s notorious Siglo XXI detention center in 2013, 1,121 children were held there for between 15 days and 300 days. Just 422, or 6 percent, were placed in local shelters.
  • A psychologist who worked with child migrants at a city shelter said that their extended detention at a local shelter made them “apprehensive” about applying for international protection. “Very few [children request asylum],” she told researchers. “What scares them is the prospect of being detained for three months.”
  • Poor conditions at Siglo XXI also deterred migrants from seeking asylum. Once families are detained, members are separated by age; many detainees reported that the gang presence they’d fled had followed them to the center. As one 15-year-old boy said: “It’s an awful place. People are crammed, it’s very hot, the food is terrible, and it’s dangerous for us teenagers because they put us together with maras [Central American gangs].”
  • Researchers also noted that Mexican immigration officials who are legally bound to screen children for asylum and other forms of deportation relief failed to inform them that they had a right to international protection. None of the children the research team interviewed at Siglo XXI was informed by child protection officers or other immigration officials about the right to seek asylum.
  • Few migrants who applied for international protection in Mexico received it, according to the country’s Commission for the Assistance of Refugees. Of the 1,165 cases decided between January and September 2014, only 247 were recognized, despite the fact that the commission received 17 percent more applications for asylum in the first eight months of 2014 than in all of 2013.


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