Not All Kids Are Equal: Central American Kids Get Court Dates, Mexicans Get the Boot


When I meet Kevin* inside a Tijuana shelter, he stares straight into my eyes and asks me an urgent question. Can you pass me over there?

He’s slender, 16, and the words fall from his mouth without pause. He’s been here on the Mexican side of the border for a few days now, 1,800 miles from the jagged hills and rural countryside of his hometown in the state of Guerrero. Kevin likes Tijuana; he thinks it’s grande, libre, una ciudad bella.

But he’s desperate to leave.

The problem is, like many unaccompanied youth, he doesn’t have an exact destination, or a plan. Kevin’s godfather, who raised him, is already somewhere in the U.S.

Allá están a la luz del mundo, a la luz del día,” Kevin says. At home, organized crime operates in broad daylight, he tells me. After his godfather received death threats and fled, Kevin says he was also threatened. He tried moving to another neighborhood, but the problems followed him.

So now, Kevin is headed north. He knows his godfather is in the States. He just doesn’t know where.

A Steady Flow North

Over the past month, the stories of unaccompanied Central American children have alternately captivated, saddened, and enraged many segments of the American public.

But children and teens from Mexico, who travel north for similar if not identical reasons, have been largely absent from the conversation.

“To me, they’re the same,” says Dr. Alejandra Castañeda, an investigator at the Mexican think tank El Colegio de la Frontera Norte and author of the book The Politics of Citizenship of Mexican Migrants. “I don't see a lot of differences, if you look at it in terms of the region.”

In general, the number of Mexicans emigrating to the United States has dipped in recent years, balancing out at net zero. But the number of Mexican minors heading north remains steady.

Apprehensions of unaccompanied Mexican kids reached an all-time high last year, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported the capture of 17,240 children. That's an average of 47 per day, or 42 percent of the total unaccompanied children caught by Border Patrol. In comparison, the agency apprehended 8,068 Guatemalan kids, 6,747 Hondurans, and 5,990 Salvadorans in 2013.

“There’s always been volume from Mexico coming to the U.S.,” says Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center. “The Mexican numbers back to 2009 has been 11 to 12,000 kids arriving illegally in the US each year.”

The rate has remained steady. For fiscal year 2014, a total of 12,146 Mexican kids have been caught along the border. That means one out of four unaccompanied children snagged by Border Patrol is Mexican, making them the second largest group of apprehended kids behind Hondurans.

The majority of Central American and Mexican kids flee their native countries for the same reasons, says Elizabeth G. Kennedy, a Fulbright researcher working with child migrants in El Salvador as part of a doctoral dissertation on unaccompanied youth.

"They are afraid of forced gang or cartel recruitment and high levels of crime and violence targeted at young people," Kennedy says. "At the same time, many live in extreme poverty and hope to obtain a better life for themselves and their loved ones through study and hard work."

But there's a big difference between how Mexican and Central American kids are treated once they cross the border. Mexican children and teens are deported almost immediately, without ever setting foot in court to argue their case for legal status. Their quick ouster is known as "expedited repatriation." Central American children, however, are allowed to remain in the country until they go before a judge. Lawmakers from Texas are now discussing plans for new legislation aimed at removing Central American kids in a similarly expedited fashion.

That law would overturn the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), implemented in 2008 to protect kids migrating from "non-contiguous countries" from being pushed across the border into the clutches of trafficking networks. . It mandated children arriving from "non contiguous countries" were immune from immediate deportation. Instead, they’re now transferred into the custody of the Office of Refugees and Resettlement, and given a future court date to make a case for staying in the U.S., through an asylum claim or by obtaining a Special Immigrant Juvenile Status visa.

Since Mexico and Canada are contiguous countries, unaccompanied children crossing over from those citizens don’t get a day in court. Most Mexican kids never have contact with the Office of Refugees and Resettlement. Instead, Border Patrol agents calls the shots for Mexican kids, which means most of them get removed quickly and quietly.

“The way that the Mexican children are treated is unjust,” says Bryan Johnson, a Long Island immigration lawyer who currently represents around 100 unaccompanied migrant youth from Central America. “It’s kind of ignored, I think… The kids are here for less than 48 hours, and then dropped on the other side of the border. They’re an invisible population.”

Two Distinct Processes: The Mexican Difference

The process of removing Mexican minors is streamlined, simple, and undeniably cheaper for the United States. The Border Patrol picks up a kid. He or she is brought to a Border Patrol station, where they’re then questioned inside a screening office, temporarily detained according to specific kid-friendly rules, and given snacks and juice.

If the kids are traveling alone, and without documentation, then the consulate of their home country is supposed to be notified immediately.

The Border Patrol has a maximum of 72 hours in which to transfer kids to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR)—a process that also involves a third government agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is responsible for the actual physical transport of the young detainees.

For Mexican kids, the process is abbreviated. Border agents have just 48 hours to repatriate them south of the border.

Very few Mexican kids end up in U.S. shelters, which are populated mostly with Central American youth, who can stay in protective custody for months --and in some cases years-- until their court hearing.

Before repatriation, border agents are supposed to execute a series of questions to determine whether or not Mexican youth have gone through what the TVPRA calls a “severe form of trafficking in persons.” Agents also evaluate whether there’s any “credible evidence that the minor is at risk” upon expedited return to Mexico.

The screening is designed to determine whether the kids have a credible fear claim, and whether they can “make an independent decision to voluntarily return to his country of nationality or last habitual residence.”

Activists question the process.[...]


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