Border Screening for Children Has Failed
The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) establishes key protections for the care, release, and due process rights of unaccompanied immigrant children. However, the TVPRA has very limited protections for Mexican (and Canadian) children: Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials must screen these children within 48 hours to determine whether they are trafficking victims, eligible for asylum, or lack the capacity to make an independent decision to return to their country. If CBP officials—who lack child welfare, child development, and trauma-informed interviewing expertise—fail to identify one of these protective factors, the children can be immediately returned without ever seeing a lawyer or judge, and without any consideration of their safety or best interests. Under this provision of the TVPRA, Mexican children are routinely sent back across the border to their country.
Recent data establishes that CBP’s screening returns nearly every Mexican child, despite well-known risks of trafficking and persecution. We therefore recommend that policy makers reject any proposal that would subject all unaccompanied children to the same process as children from Mexico.
Finding #1: An extraordinarily high percentage of unaccompanied Mexican children are immediately sent back across the border without any evaluation by an independent decision-maker. In 2014, the GAO found that the TVPRA “contiguous country screening” by CBP officials consistently sent children back to Mexico. Specifically, from 2009 to 2014, 95% of all unaccompanied Mexican children apprehended at the border were repatriated. Data from the Mexican and U.S. governments confirms that this incredibly high percentage of children forcibly returned to Mexico has not changed. From 2015 to 2018, an average of 85% of unaccompanied Mexican children were repatriated. In 2018 alone, 95% of Mexican children apprehended at the border were immediately sent back. In some years the number of repatriated Mexican children was higher than the number of children apprehended at the border from El Salvador or Honduras.
Finding #2: Repatriated Mexican children consistently come from particularly dangerous communities in Mexico and are being returned with no assessment of whether they will be safe. The top 10 states of origin for repatriated Mexican children between 2015 and 2018 were among the top 25 states for organized crime-style homicides from 2017 to 2018. The top three states of origin—Sonora, Guerrero, and Tamaulipas—are among some of the most dangerous states in Mexico. The State Department has identified Sonora as a key location for the international drug trade and human trafficking networks. In 2018, Guerrero had the second highest number of homicides in Mexico; its city of Acapulco was the second most violent city in the world. Tamaulipas had the 8th highest rate of murder in Mexico in 2018, and its city of Reynosa was ranked as the country’s most unsafe city by its residents.6 In 2018 alone, more than one third of repatriated Mexican children were returned to Guerrero and Tamaulipas. Though these states continued to be the most dangerous places in Mexico in 2018, more than 95% of unaccompanied Mexican children who fled from them were sent back—again, with no determination of whether they were returning to certain danger.
Young Center’s Recommendations: The TVPRA’s provision for contiguous country screening should not be expanded to any other children at the border. CBP’s screening of Mexican children has not changed since 2014 and is wholly inadequate to identify children at risk of trafficking or persecution. The standards that have allowed these children to be returned to dangerous parts of Mexico cannot be the model for the evaluation of other unaccompanied children who seek protection at our borders. In short: any expansion of the “contiguous country provision” will result in children being returned to their traffickers or persecutors. Any proposal that would allow CBP to immediately repatriate children at the U.S. border should be summarily rejected as a threat to the most minimum standards of care and protection for children.