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USA: Pushed into harm's way: Forced returns of unaccompanied migrant children to danger by the USA and Mexico

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Children, just like adults, have the universal human right to seek and enjoy asylum from harm. Unaccompanied migrant children are often targeted precisely because they are children, and are even more vulnerable to human rights violations than adults. Compounding the potential harm they face in each country and every step along the migrant trail, they are then often routinely denied access to asylum and other protection systems.

From 2018 to 2021, the governments of both Mexico and the USA have forcibly returned unaccompanied migrant children to their countries of origin, without adequate screenings for potential irreparable harm they could face there. Yet even prior to then, unaccompanied migrant children had uneven access to asylum procedures both within Mexico and at the US–Mexico border, which persists today.

Since January 2021, under the new administration of US President Joseph Biden, tens of thousands of unaccompanied migrant children from Central America and Mexico have crossed irregularly into the USA along the US–Mexico border. The majority of those children are seeking safe haven from targeted violence and other human rights crises in their countries of origin. One in every three migrants and asylum-seekers from Central America and Mexico is a child, and half of them are unaccompanied by family members or other adults. In more than 80 percent of their cases, these children are hoping to reunify with family members who are already residing in the USA, according to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

After these unaccompanied children have fled life-threatening insecurity in their home countries, they have then faced new threats of systematic pushbacks and forced returns by US and Mexican authorities to those very countries where many escaped death threats or other irreparable harm. Under national and international law, both the US and Mexican governments are legally obligated to determine and act in the children’s best interests when receiving them. Instead, they are often failing to conduct adequate screenings of potential harm that the children could face upon return to their countries of origin, and are in some cases forcing them back into harm’s way.

From 2018 to 2020, Amnesty International interviewed dozens of unaccompanied children from Central America and Mexico, in shelters on both sides of the US–Mexico border. Each with their own hopes and dreams – most often to reunite safely with loved ones in the USA – they recounted troubling stories of being routinely denied their right to request asylum at US–Mexico border crossings. Those denials came from both US and Mexican authorities. The children recounted how they were turned away by US border authorities, intercepted by Mexican immigration officials, threatened with deportation to harm in their home countries if they sought to cross the border, and sometimes even insulted or physically assaulted by authorities.

One 15-year-old girl from Honduras told Amnesty International in April 2019 of how she slept in the streets of Juarez for two weeks to avoid detection by Mexican authorities, until she could cross the river safely to El Paso and try to reunite with her brother in the USA. Even though she was fleeing death threats by a gang that had already killed her cousin, she knew as a child that she was not allowed to request asylum at the official border crossing (“port-of-entry”), and that if she were intercepted then she would most likely be deported to the same dangers she had just escaped:


In March 2020, a 16-year-old boy from Honduras told Amnesty International how he fled similar death threats from a gang, after refusing to deal drugs for them. After arriving in Tijuana, he tried to claim asylum at the port of entry, in order to reunite with his older brother in California. US border authorities immediately turned him away.

“They said they weren’t giving any asylum. It was very rapid. […] There was a police officer who was private security who told me I had to leave or he would call INM and they would deport me. […] I was here one week, and then I jumped the fence and was caught. […] Yes, I asked for asylum, but they didn’t put me into any process, they just gave me to the Mexican immigration. Yes, I told the Mexican officials what happened, and they didn’t take me to immigration, they took me to the shelter. […] The Americans didn’t tell me anything. Since my birth certificate doesn’t have a picture, they didn’t believe that I was a minor. […] I got very scared that they would send me back to Honduras.” – Eduardo*

Both US and Mexican authorities have violated their obligations under national and international law to protect the human rights of asylum-seeking children. They have violated their rights, firstly, by denying them access to asylum procedures through unlawful pushbacks at the border; and, secondly, by summarily returning them to their countries of origin, without adequate screenings for potential harm. In some cases of asylum-seeking children, this has likely resulted in their forced return to ill-treatment (refoulement).

Aware of some of their shortcomings, the US and Mexican governments have also both adopted positive measures in recent months to expand protections for unaccompanied migrant children. However, they have not done enough to ensure children are not sent back to harm, and the aforementioned violations continue every day. Both governments have the capacity and resources to halt their abuses, improve human rights protections in policy and practice, and stop sending migrant children back into harm’s way.

In some localities, Mexican and US border and immigration authorities have worked together with international partners on an ad hoc basis to facilitate family reunifications of Central American and Mexican unaccompanied children with their family members already living in the USA. Those initiatives have proven successful in their limited application, and should be adequately funded for expansion and transparent oversight all along the US–Mexico border. DHS Secretary Mayorkas noted in 2021 that approximately 80 percent of unaccompanied migrant children apprehended by DHS along the US–Mexico border are seeking to reunify with sponsoring family members who are already in the USA.

To deny unaccompanied migrant children their rights both to seek asylum and to family unity is unconscionable, irrespective of whether they are from Central America or from Mexico. Systematic violations of those rights by both the USA and Mexico must stop without further delay.