June 16, 2006

The difficult situation of migrant minors

By Luis Alonso Pérez

Diego Hernandez is 16 years old and last week he left his native town of Salvatierra, Guanajuato with his cousin Jose, who is also 16 years old. They headed north towards the border city of Tijuana and entered the United States without documents. They where on their way to Los Angeles, where his older sister awaits him, but after two nights of walking trough the mountainous region they where detained by Border Patrol agents and deported back to Tijuana.

Diego and Jose are just two of the thousands of migrant minors that attempt to enter illegally into the US without the company of family members and are deported to the dangerous Mexican border towns, a fast growing phenomenon that has caught the attention of the international community because of the risks they are exposed to.

According to Theresa Kilbane, program officer for UNICEF Mexico, more than 22 thousand unaccompanied children and adolescents where deported in 2005.

“I think that the Mexican Border in particular has characteristics in sense of the quantity of children and adolescents that are attempting to cross and that are repatriated; it’s probably greater than in most other parts of the world. That presents a particular challenge in particular for the Mexican government, just because of the sheer numbers”.

Kilbane was one of the participants at last week’s seminar on unaccompanied migrant minors held in the Northern Frontier College, a Mexican border issues investigation center.

One of the goals of the seminar was to examine the reasons the American government is not following binational safe deportation agreements in some border towns, and in some cases, deporting minors on unsafe conditions.

According to Uriel Gonzales, program coordinator at the local YMCA minor migrant shelter, said that in Tijuana safe deportation agreements are followed roughly 80 percent of the time.

“We are aware that in some other points of entry they are not being followed, like in Mexicali, where they are still deporting minors late at night, apparently because neither American nor Mexican authorities have minor detention centers where they can be sheltered. So they are deported as soon as they are apprehended, leaving minors in a vulnerable situation”.

One of the main concerns expressed at the seminar where the possible massive deportations that can come as a consequence of an increase in border security and the tightening of immigration laws in the United States.

Susana Ortíz-Ang, Deputy Director of the Division of Unaccompanied Children’s Services of U. S. Department of Health and Human Services said that at this point it’s uncertain what can happen if border security is increased.

“Our past experience is that when Homeland Security has put into place all of these operations at the borders, the number of apprehensions have increased”

Immigrant rights advocate and researcher Jose Moreno Mena fears an increase in the number of deported minors because the Mexican government lacks the infrastructure to take care of them.

“I believe that the Mexican government is not foreseeing this situation. Humanitarian groups are the ones announcing the needs that are going to have to be satisfied and some of them are already preparing for it”.

Although this situation might seem like a local problem, unaccompanied children’s migration is in the agenda of many countries around the world, such as children from North Africa who attempt to enter into Spain, or kids from Albania immigrating to Italy said Theresa Kilbane.

“It’s the lack of economic opportunities and the lack of social protection at their points of origin what makes people feel obligated to look for other opportunities in other parts of the world” said Kilbane. “It’s a growing problem that needs to be addressed as part of the overall public policies related to children and adolescents”.

For now the future of Diego and Jose seems uncertain. After their journey through the mountains and their deportation, they neither have the strength or the courage to try to cross again, but they don’t want to go back home feeling defeated, and the dream of one day having a job and helping out their families is what keeps them going.

“The hope of coming over here is so we can be someone over there” said Diego.

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