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April 19, 2022

Responding To: Innovating Protection for Children Along the Migratory Route and at the U.S.-Mexico Border

Strengthening Mexico’s Protection Landscape for Migrant Children: Challenges and Opportunities Ahead

Andrea Tanco, Strategic Advisor to the President and Associate Policy Analyst; Maria Jesus Mora, Research Assistant; Daniela Hall, Demetrios G. Papademetriou Young Scholar, Migration Policy Institute (MPI)

Since 2014, hundreds of thousands of migrant children and adolescents have left Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to make the dangerous migration journey to Mexico or the United States, leaving everything they know behind in search of family, opportunities, and protection. Many of these Central American children rely on civil society organizations to access water, food, and temporary shelter as they travel north. But the path for an increasing number of these children is interrupted by Mexican immigration authorities who apprehend and subsequently transfer them into the custody of Mexico's social welfare agency. This article draws attention to Mexico’s new law and policies concerning migrant children and explores alternative emerging programs and solutions that may better reflect children’s strengths, experiences, and needs.

Mexico enacted changes to its immigration law in late 2020, prohibiting the detention of migrant children and their adult companions. This was amid an over 53% increase in the number of children arriving in Mexico and after years of advocacy from civil society organizations. According to the newly implemented law, Mexico's National Institute of Migration (INM) must immediately notify child protection officials after encountering a migrant child. The INM coordinates with the Federal Prosecutor’s Office for the Protection of Children and Adolescents (PPNA) in the state where the encounter occurred, and the PPNA determines what is in the best interest of the child. The INM must suspend deportation processes of adults caring for a child and grant them a humanitarian visa which allows access to basic services. INM also transfers custody of the migrant children and any accompanying adults to the state’s system for Integral Family Development (DIF). DIF assumes legal custody of children—whether Mexican or foreign-born—and thus is responsible for their physical and psychological well-being, including conducting intake evaluations and providing housing and social assistance to migrant children and accompanying adults. DIF also coordinates with civil society organizations working to protect migrants’ human rights.

Although many civil and international organizations initially praised these legislative reforms, the implementation of the law has fallen short of addressing the protection needs of children and adolescents on the move for several reasons. First, there are significant coordination gaps among INM, PPNA, and DIF. Second, migrant children and accompanying adults generally perceive their time in DIF shelters as detention—not so different from what they experienced in INM facilities, despite DIF's historic focus on the welfare of children. This is likely due to capacity constraints and other operational challenges at DIF.

DIF personnel working in its Centers for Social Assistance (CAS) determine how much time and under what conditions children can leave the DIF shelters. These rules are relatively uneven across local CAS and depend on state and local regulations. Moreover, MPI interviews with officials from international organizations and local NGOs revealed that CAS personnel are reluctant to allow children to engage in recreational activities outdoors citing security and health concerns, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The limitation on freedom of movement and access to fresh air negatively impacts children and adolescents’ development. These and other restrictions, including rules against attending activities outside of the shelters after school, fail to recognize and value migrant children’s agency, and increases the risk of institutionalizing research shows can lead to poor physical and psychological outcomes. This is especially detrimental in the case of migrant children and adolescents, who in many cases have already developed self-protection and coping strategies along their travel that may have increased their agency and self-sufficiency in comparison to other children their age.

Furthermore, children have limited contact with people outside the CAS facilities, including Mexican authorities like the PPNA and Mexico’s Refugee Agency (COMAR), or consulate representatives from their country of origin. The lack of communication with relevant authorities regarding the outcome of the PPNA’s evaluation or their immigration case can hinder their ability to exercise their legal rights, including access to Mexico’s asylum system, and often leads to more strain on their mental health.

Despite the increased number of migrant children arriving in Mexico, few have applied for asylum. In 2021, migrant children and adolescents made up 25% of all Mexican migrant apprehensions; during this period, only 41% of them applied for asylum in Mexico. COMAR received only 1,281 asylum applications from unaccompanied children, accounting for 0.9% of the total share of all asylum applications in that period. During that same period, unaccompanied children were 5% of all apprehensions, suggesting they are disproportionately unlikely to apply for asylum. Several reasons may explain such low asylum application rates. First, some children may opt not to request asylum in Mexico because they want to join family members in the United States. Second, the lack of access to legal counsel while in CAS facilities and inadequate screenings for immigration relief by authorities may also contribute to low asylum requests. Third, according to MPI interviews of international organizations and Mexican civil society organizations, Mexican authorities are prioritizing the assisted return of children to their countries of origin rather than providing them transparent guidance on their right to seek asylum in the country. Moreover, some children who requested asylum in Mexico have attempted to escape DIF facilities and abandon their legal procedures due to the lack of information regarding the timeline of their procedure and restrictions on their freedom of movement.

For several years, civil society and international organizations have proposed alternatives to any form of detention—including immigration detention centers and CAS shelters—to uphold children's rights and preserve their sense of safety and protection. Since the implementation of the 2020 reforms UNICEF, Save the Children, and partners from civil society began piloting alternative community-based program models. Similar to the foster care system in the United States, the Foster Family Program is a temporary care initiative in which a volunteer family—previously identified, screened, and trained—hosts an unaccompanied child until a more durable solution is available. Foster families are responsible for covering the child's basic needs and contributing to their psychosocial and emotional development in a loving, respectful, and stimulating home environment. In the case of adolescents, foster families should also assist them in the development of a life plan to facilitate a smooth transition into young adulthood. Similarly, UNICEF has also recommended apartment-groups as a possible path to deinstitutionalization for older migrant children (ages 16 through 18) who are about to transition to adult life. In this model, fewer than eight children share an apartment under some, albeit limited, supervision by a DIF specialist who checks in with them daily and is reachable at all times.

These alternative solutions offer different approaches to addressing both the immigration and child protection needs of unaccompanied minors. For instance, migrant girls—who made up 43% of children and adolescent arrivals to Mexico in 2021—often experience sexual violence during the journey to Mexico or the United States and therefore need specialized psychological support to address their trauma. Central American Indigenous children would benefit from improved language access to information about their legal rights and placements with foster families who speak their languages. Unfortunately, these emerging alternatives to CAS facilities currently operate at a small scale, and most migrant children continue to reside in CAS facilities. To improve shelter conditions and increase capacity, DIF and its CAS facilities should receive more funding, along with oversight and clear accountability measures, to shift from detention-like practices to a less restrictive model that reflects the best interests of the child and the underlying intention of the 2020 legislative reforms.

In sum, the increased number of migrant children arriving in Mexico raises serious concerns about the resilience of Mexico’s immigration and child protection systems. A year after the enactment of the initially lauded reform which prohibits the detention of migrant children, available evidence suggests that there is still a long way ahead for its successful implementation. Currently, Mexican authorities continue to prioritize the repatriation of migrant children over their protection needs and rights to petition for asylum. And most migrant children in DIF custody continue to experience detention-like environments and treatment, with limited access to supportive care and legal services. As Mexico continues to receive a growing number of migrant children and adolescents, it will be critical to strengthen its immigration and child protection systems to successfully address the needs of this population. That means supporting government agencies as they increase their technical skills, human resources, and financial capacity to implement the 2020 law, strengthening partnerships with local and international organizations, and applying a strengths-based perspective to future policies and practices so that they reflect the experiences and voices of migrant children.

Andrea Tanco is a strategic advisor to the president and associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI).

Maria Jesus Mora is a research assistant at the Migration Policy Institute’s Latin America Initiative.

Daniela Hall is a Demetrios G. Papademetriou young scholar at the Migration Policy Institute’s Latin America Initiative.

Other Responses

Paulina Olvera Cañez
Espacio Migrante

Paulina Olvera Cañez, Founder and Director, Espacio Migrante | April 20, 2022