A sharp jump in the number of minors caught trying to enter the United States unlawfully has been partly fueled by a new Mexican law that curbs detentions of children headed to the U.S. border, according to migrants and an internal government assessment.
More than two dozen adults or unaccompanied minors in Mexico who spoke to Reuters said they believed the new measures would help them or their offspring get to the United States and escape the poverty and violence blighting much of Central America.
And the internal government assessment seen by Reuters showed Mexican security officials concluded Mexico’s improved child safeguards are among the factors encouraging migration.
Taking effect in January, just days before U.S. President Joe Biden entered the White House, the child protection law prohibits detention of minors in migration centers and offers them provisional legal status to avoid immediate deportation.
When 17-year-old Honduran Karla learned of the new Mexican safeguards, she said she thought they gave her a better chance of getting to the United States and reuniting with her father, who she has not seen for 12 years.
“I was excited, even though I knew there were lots of risks in Mexico,” she said at a migrant shelter in the southern Mexican town of Palenque. “It was very hard to leave my country; it’s really scary having to walk through places by yourselves.”
Her family quickly arranged the logistics, and a smuggler transported Karla, along with her sister and cousin, who are also minors, to Mexico’s border with Guatemala.
In Mexico, she quickly requested legal protections and then aimed to make her way to the U.S. border, she said.
Mexico’s new law, along with Biden’s announcement that unaccompanied minors would be allowed to enter the United States, has drawn praise from human rights groups.
But the rising number of young migrants illustrates the quandary faced by Mexico and Washington. Both want to improve the lot of migrants, especially children. But by doing so, they have exacerbated a phenomenon they are struggling to handle.
“Mexico is facing a humanitarian crisis of children and adolescents moving through the country,” said Misael Hernandez, a migration expert at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte (Colef).
Welfare authorities were being left to face a challenge they were not equipped to deal with, Hernandez said.
In March, some 18,890 people under the age of 18 were apprehended without parents or legal guardians on the U.S. border with Mexico, an almost six-fold increase from the same month in 2020, according to official U.S. data.
Passed by Congress with cross-party support in late September, the law was promulgated by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in November as part of measures taken by his government to mitigate the humanitarian impact of migration.
Asked about the law, the U.S. State Department said Washington supports Mexico in working with international partners to implement its recent child protection reforms responsibly.
A State Department official did not directly address the question of whether the United States regards the recent Mexican law changes as a factor in increased migration.
Alongside a re-orientation of U.S. policy, the security assessment seen by Reuters cited changes to migration rules benefiting children as factors that would bolster migration. The security ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Those changes included creating a new “Social Assistance Center” for minors, granting humanitarian permits to prevent their immediate return, and placing the children under the care of a body dedicated to family welfare known as the DIF.
The legislation states that minors cannot be detained on the grounds of their immigration status and that the DIF must provide accommodation for migrant children regardless of nationality while “guaranteeing the principle of family unity.”
But with the coronavirus pandemic hurting public coffers, the DIF is short of resources, said Hernandez at Colef.
Oliver Castaneda, the federal prosecutor responsible for the protection of children and adolescents, acknowledged that dealing with increased migrant traffic would be tough given that the current situation was not contemplated in the 2021 budget.
“We’ll have to operate with the same infrastructure and capacities,” Castaneda told Reuters.
Dulce, a 17-year-old Honduran, said she left home with a few savings last month in search of a better life for herself and her six-month-old baby boy after hearing about the new Mexican law that she hoped would help her reach the U.S. border safely.
Soon after she got to Mexico, she began searching for immigration authorities to claim her rights. But she was set upon and raped before she could find the right officials, and her baby thrown to the ground by the attacker, she said.
Afterwards, she made contact with officials. But they took her to a private shelter, not a DIF center, Dulce said.
“The Mexican government has neither the capacity nor the facilities to house families or the large number of adolescents arriving alone, that’s why the National Migration Institute brings them here,” said Carmen Ramirez, head of the refugee section at the El Caminante migrant shelter in Palenque.
The migration institute did not respond to a request for comment.
Private shelters do not always have the same facilities as the DIF, including emotional and psychological care that vulnerable adolescent migrants like Dulce can require.
Ramirez estimated the number of teenage migrants traveling alone without even a guide, or “coyote”, had more than doubled during the past few weeks. Most were Hondurans, she said.
Soon, she said, private shelters such as hers would be overwhelmed because there were not enough alternatives.