US, Mexico need joint policy to address needs of unaccompanied minors, say Rice experts

A child-centric approach in the United States and Mexico is necessary to address the needs of migrating unaccompanied minors in both countries, according to an issue brief from Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

U.S.-Mexico border crossing in El Paso, Texas. Credit: 123RF.com/Rice University

“Alone and Vulnerable: Unaccompanied Minors in the United States and Mexico” was co-authored by Pamela Lizette Cruz, a research analyst in the Baker Institute’s Mexico Center, and Tony Payan, the Françoise and Edward Djerejian Fellow for Mexico Studies at the Baker Institute and director of the Mexico Center.

The brief provides an overview on unaccompanied minors arriving in Mexico and the U.S. and discusses the main reasons why these children and adolescents flee their home countries, their perilous journeys, the conditions of their detention and the treatment they experience in detention centers — including alleged abuse, inhumane conditions and denial of their basic rights. It also argues that both countries need a child-centric approach to better understand and address the needs of these minors, ensuring their best interests and well-being.

From Oct. 1, 2017 to Aug. 31 of this year, 45,704 unaccompanied minors were apprehended on the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the brief. The overwhelming majority of unaccompanied children apprehended in Mexico or at the border are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — countries consistently ranked among the most violent in Latin America.

“Unaccompanied minors represent an increasing number of migrants journeying to Mexico and the United States,” the authors wrote. “It is clear that their needs are different than those of adult undocumented migrants. Their detention and safekeeping requires a policy with specific principles, such as focusing on the best interests of the child, as well as specific actions to ensure that they are kept safe and have access to counseling, education and humane treatment while in government custody. Their physical well-being and mental health should be a priority for all agencies and governments involved in their apprehension and detention, and they should be provided with proper information and legal counsel when placed in the judicial system.”

The increase in unaccompanied minors in the U.S. and Mexico has garnered much attention in recent years, but it is part of a global trend that is not a new phenomenon, according to the authors. “Lately, however, both Mexico and the U.S. have come under severe criticism for the detention and treatment of these unaccompanied minors,” the authors wrote.

“The immigration system — or deterrence mechanisms, such as policies to separate children from their parents — cannot put at risk the safety of children who end up in the government’s custody. If these minors are to be sent back to their home countries, great care should be taken to ensure that they are returned to their rightful parents or guardians under the best possible conditions,” the authors wrote.

The authors concluded: “Finally, and broadly speaking, the issue of unaccompanied minors should be addressed jointly by Mexico and the U.S., with standardized procedures in both countries and actions directed at mitigating the reasons why these unaccompanied minors are fleeing their countries. Antagonistic rhetoric from the U.S. toward Mexico, and the potential new position Mexico may take under the next administration in response to that rhetoric, can only worsen the future of a whole generation of children and adolescents — who may be physically and psychologically scarred from negative migration and detention experiences, perhaps to the point that they become a regional problem once they reach adulthood — rather than provide meaningful solutions for an already suffering population.”

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.