Central Americans Rerouted: A U.S. Immigration Crisis Gets Outsourced

A Human Rights Watch report finds fewer migrants are making it to the U.S. border, and they face harsh treatment in Mexico.
Two boys leave Tijuana's Casa YMCA, the city's only shelter for unaccompanied migrant children between the ages of 13 and 18. (Photo: Erin Siegal McIntyre)
Mar 31, 2016· 5 MIN READ
Erin Siegal McIntyre is a Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism and a producer-correspondent with Univision Documentales.

For a 12-year-old migrant in Mexico, a typical holding cell in Acayucán, Veracruz, is packed. Sets of bunk beds are stacked along the edges of a single cell. The walls are generally a stark pale gray or white.

Five months ago, when Human Rights Watch senior counsel Michael Bochenek visited the Estación Migratoria in Acayucán, he peered at the group of preteens and teens held together in tight quarters in front of him and then silently counted the number of beds.

“Where you sleep?” he asked the boys, who ranged in age from 12 to 17.

Everywhere, he recalled them answering, gesturing at the floor space and pointing beneath the bunks.

Bodies outnumbered beds.

Bochenek, one of the study’s coauthors, told TakePart that over the course of researching Closed Doors: Mexico’s Failure to Protect Central American Refugee and Migrant Children, a 151-page study from Human Rights Watch released Thursday, some child migrants told him they’d rather risk death than remain in Mexican custody.

In 2015 alone, more than 35,000 children were held in Mexican immigration detention centers, according to the report.

“Many kids I interviewed in Honduras who were deported [from Mexico] said even if they had known that they could apply for asylum, they wouldn’t have,” Bochenek said. “They didn’t want to spend more time in detention.”

A small group pushes off the Guatemalan coast on rafts to cross the Suchiate River to the banks of Chiapas, Mexico. (Photo: Erin Siegal McIntyre)

The surge in Central American migrant children and teens crossing Mexico’s northern border peaked in summer 2014, reigniting a contentious debate around immigration policy in the U.S. It was met with President Barack Obama’s request for $400 million in contingency funds to accommodate unaccompanied minors on top of the $950 million that had already been allocated to deal with the issue.

If the intent was to simply stop migrants from reaching America, it paid off: An increased number of Central American migrant children are now being apprehended and detained in Mexico, the report says. At the same time, the number of unaccompanied Central American minors fleeing violence has never been higher, and reports of poor conditions in Mexican detention centers are raising concerns.

Between 2014 and 2015, apprehensions of unaccompanied Central American children in Mexico rose by 70 percent as such U.S. detentions dropped 22 percent. The correlation implies that Mexico is succeeding in heading off children before they can reach the southern U.S. border.

Underage migrants in U.S. custody haven’t fared well over time. Some have alleged abuses, including insults from guards, sexual assault, and having to drink toilet water.

In Mexico, however, Bochenek said, the worst part of detention for most child and teen migrants is the simple fact that they’re held like prisoners.

“There are problems with the length of time they are there, and the fact that they’re there in the first place…. A lot of kids have family in Mexico and can be released to family, but they aren’t,” he explained.

Human Rights Watch found that in Mexico, “wide discrepancies” exist between the law and how it’s enacted.

For example, although Mexican law says migrant children should be quickly transferred to the custody of Mexico’s national child protection agency and detained only in exceptional circumstances, the majority of kids are locked up in prison-like conditions anyway, then subsequently deported.

“Children who may have claims for refugee recognition confront multiple obstacles in applying for refugee recognition from the moment they are taken into custody by immigration agents,” the report reads.

Agents fail to inform two-thirds of migrant children of their right to seek refugee recognition in Mexico, and government authorities don’t screen children to see whether or not they have credible refugee claims, according to the report. Last, no legal help or assistance is offered to refugee children who do apply for refugee status, a problem that also plays out for migrant kids in the United States, where a senior immigration judge recently ruled that three- and four-year-olds can represent themselves in court.

At least 27,000 unaccompanied minors entered Mexico over the first 10 months of 2015, the Mexican government reported. Human Rights Watch said that’s likely a significant underestimate.

That’s because, around the same time, U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows the apprehensions of 28,000 unaccompanied child migrants from Central America along the U.S. southern border between October 2014 and September 2015.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that up to half of Central American kids entering Mexico have credible claims for asylum. But the new report says Mexico’s emphasis has remained on immigration enforcement.

That focus on apprehension and deportation has no corresponding regard for children’s protection needs, Bochenek said.

The United States has encouraged Mexico’s crackdown with funding and equipment including scanners and vehicles.

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The Washington Post reported in December that U.S. officials “plan to spend about $150 million on two major programs, including a biometric system for Mexico to keep track of the migrants it detains and a series of cellphone towers along the rural [southern] border to help government agencies communicate.”

In July 2014, Ambassador Tom Shannon, then the counselor of the Department of State, told the Senate Appropriations Committee that because Mexico was cooperative in starting a new initiative, Programa Frontera Sur, the State Department offered to “match this level of cooperation” with $86 million in funding “to provide support to Mexico’s southern border initiative.”

By September 2014, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson had released a statement applauding how U.S. agencies “responded aggressively to the situation,” saying the U.S was “pleased that the Mexican government has itself taken a number of important steps to interdict the flow of illegal migrants.”

Looking at the numbers, the investment to slow the tide of migration seems to have paid off, but it has left many young people in a precarious situation.

For teens like Gabriel R., 15, migration wasn’t as much a choice as a necessity. (Human Rights Watch withheld the teen’s last name to ensure confidentiality.)

After gang members approached him at school in Cortés, Honduras, Gabriel was told to join the gang or face the consequences.

“They gave me three days,” he told Human Rights Watch. “If I didn’t join them, they’d kill me.”

Within those three days, he’d set off, alone, in an attempt to cross through Mexico. He ended up in detention in northern Mexico.

Out of the 60 immigration detention centers in Mexico, the majority of kids traveling alone end up in two large southern detention centers: Siglo XXI in Tapachula, Chiapas, and Acayucán in the state of Veracruz. Mexican press reports have previously decried “inhumane” conditions in Siglo XXI.

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A Mexican law mandates protection—such as housing in shelters run by the national child protection agency and professional screening—upon first encounter by child protection officers. Yet, data reviewed by Human Rights Watch revealed that just 1 percent of underage migrant youths had been recognized as refugees or received such protections in Mexico.

“Obviously if they reach the U.S., the standard obligation under international refugee laws exists to give them a fair hearing, and to make sure they’re not returning to a place where they will be tortured or that their life would be at risk,” Bochenek said. “Many would qualify for asylum in the U.S.”

Uriel González, director of Casa YMCA, Tijuana’s only shelter for unaccompanied migrant children between 13 and 18, interacts with teens and preteens daily.

He’s recently seen children from El Salvador and Honduras pass through the shelter on the way to ask for asylum in the U.S. “In some cases, we were able to identify pro bono immigration lawyers to take the cases,” González said.

Still, even for those underage migrants who beat the odds and find representation, the chances of actually winning asylum cases are slim.

The problem will likely get worse before improving.

Violent crime continues to spike in Central America. El Salvador recently unseated Honduras as the world’s most murderous country: In 2015, the murder rate there leaped 70 percent.

“It probably shouldn’t be surprising that kids are traveling alone at younger and younger ages. Even though I knew that intellectually, it was still shocking to talk to a 10- or an 11-year-old traveling on their own,” Bochenek said, noting that the number of girls migrating alone is growing, comprising a quarter of the Central American child migrant population. “Those two things are indicators of how difficult things are in the northern triangle.”