Young Mexicans are being held for as long as six months at a time without charges in detention centers across the United States as part of a new effort to deter repeat border-crossers from coming into the country.
The Juvenile Referral Process began in May of last year in the Border Patrol sectors of Laredo and Del Rio, and according to statistics obtained by the Washington Post, 536 juveniles have been held under the program so far. About half, 248, have spent on average 75 days in the U.S. before being deported to Mexico.
Border patrol intelligence analysts found that cartels prefer to hire Mexican children under the age of 18 as smugglers, guides and scouts because they know they would not be prosecuted if caught. In fact, 78 percent of those smuggling Mexicans into the U.S. were under 18 years old, according to the analysts.
The program is the brain child of Robert Harris, the outgoing U.S. Customs and Border Protection commander of the Laredo sector. Harris believes holding certain young Mexicans, believed to be working for cartels in detention serves to get these kids out of the smuggling enterprise.
Some kids on the border have been captured more than 60 times, according to the Washington Post.
Human rights groups and some Mexican officials fear that the children and their families are being put at risk of being targeted for snitching on the organized groups when they return to Mexico.
"A lot of those kids get sent back to places like Tamaulipas where it is clear that you’ve been in U.S. detention and the possible repercussions on the safety of these children can be bad," said Maureen Meyer, an expert on Mexico and migrants at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), to Fox News Latino. "The biggest concern we have about the program is, What happens to them when they come back to Mexico?"
Yet another issue is in regards to how the border patrol is determining whether to treat these children as victims or criminals.
"A lot of these kids who are working for criminal organizations are not voluntarily doing so," Meyer said to FNL. "A lot of them should or could qualify for protection in the United States. These type of children could be potential victims of human trafficking."
Harris, the USCBP outgoing commander, told the Washington Post the Border Patrol does not have a system to track what happens to these children once they are sent back to Mexico.
However, he said the program does seem to be working as a deterrent, estimating that just 7 percent of the children that have been held in detention for months have been caught trying to cross the border illegally again.