A two-year-old law enacted to protect Mexican children from border violence has failed to shield them from drug cartels, gangs and other dangers, according to advocates quoted in a report.
The Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act of 2008 allows Mexican children who crossed the border alone to be returned to Mexico only after officers determine the children are not human trafficking victims, can't claim asylum or if the children volunteer to go home rather than remain detained in a shelter.
The law was aimed at addressing concerns about a "revolving door" at the border for Mexican children, describing how the children were being immediately turned back without any investigation of their circumstances. Children from Central America and other countries generally go to shelters because their countries do not border the U.S.
"These children are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. They have traveled long distances for purposes of trafficking, many of them will be trafficked en route ...," said David Nachman, an attorney with DLA Piper, a law firm that helped with the report.
"The revolving door that had so long existed at the border for these vulnerable children is still spinning today," Nachman said.
Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Most of the youths in shelters set up in the U.S. for unaccompanied children are from Central America and elsewhere, even though most of the children crossing the border without an adult are Mexican, according to the report released by Appleseed and Mexican Appleseed, a network of 16 groups in the U.S. and Mexico.
About 15,000 to 16,000 Mexican children were apprehended crossing the border in each of the past two years, the groups said.
Part of the problem is the Homeland Security Department assigned the job of interviewing and screening unaccompanied children to Customs and Border Patrol officers, who lack child welfare expertise and are not getting needed training, the advocates said
A form used for questioning children about whether they want to go home does not make clear that the children will be detained in a shelter for children, rather than a jail or immigration detention facility, advocates said.
The report also criticizes Mexican authorities for focusing on quickly returning children to families without spending adequate time determining whether doing so puts the child in danger of abuse, neglect or other problems.
"Pause and think about what it takes for a 15-, a 16-, a 17-year-old kid to decide to leave home and travel over 1,000 miles through unknown territory and to cross a hostile border. You know that kid isn't doing it lightly and in some cases at least is running away from very difficult circumstances within the home and within the community," Nachman said.
Houston attorney Domingo Llagostera, a patent lawyer who represents unaccompanied children pro bono, said Mexican children are usually gone too quickly from border custody facilities, leaving lawyers and advocates little chance to interview them and possibly find a way for the children to remain in the U.S.
Llagostera recently helped José Valentín, who just turned 18, remain in the U.S., after he traveled from his home in Honduras to reunite with his mother in Florida. She had left him when he was 2 with his grandmother, who passed away a year before Valentín embarked on his journey.
His trip included a 23-hour-ride in the trunk of a vehicle. It was cold and water seeped into it, Valentín said, and he found it hard to breathe inside. The driver told him it would only be a three-hour ride. Valentín later was arrested in Texas and kept more than a day in a Customs and Border Protection facility before going to the children's shelter.
"It's completely horrible. I don't have words to express how it is. It's completely horrible, because you are completely scared," Valentín said.
In Mexico, too little time is spent making sure the child won't face additional threats at home before returning him or her to the family or community, the report said.
A spokesman for the Mexican embassy had not yet read the report and could not immediately comment. A Border Patrol spokesman said he had not reviewed the full report and could not immediately comment.
Among the groups' recommendations:
— Transfer screening of the children to Citizenship and Immigration Services, the part of the Homeland Security Department that handles citizenship applications and other immigration benefits such as international adoptions. Proper training should be provided.
— Find new places to interview children and provide correct forms and tools for the interviews.
— Department of Homeland Security should create pilot projects to test improved compliance with the law.
— Mexico should adopt national standards for unaccompanied children returned to the country and better investigate whether returning them to parents is the best option.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.