WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

Sergio Ortiz Borbolla/WOLA

13 Apr 2023 | Commentary

Migrant Children and Adolescents Are at Risk as Mexico and the United States Fail to Provide Protections

The Mexican media outlet Animal Político partnered with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Institute for Women in Migration (IMUMI) for the summary and promotion of their investigative multimedia project.

In November 2022, the Mexican media outlet Animal Político published an extensive investigation, and earlier this year, a documentary, about how the Mexican government is failing to fulfill commitments made in the 2021 landmark legal reforms intended to establish a robust human rights protection system for accompanied and unaccompanied migrant minors and adolescents, including a prohibition on detention and family separation. With record levels of migration through Mexico persisting into 2023, the investigation pinpoints how Mexico is failing to protect these children as thousands are still detained in migrant detention centers or in annexes called “channeling centers” (centros de canalización) without being processed according to the new legal requirements. In many cases, authorities expel children and adolescents back to life-threatening circumstances in the countries from which they fled.

Watch Animal Político’s documentary below, Back with the Maras: Mexico expels migrant children fleeing violence

Here is a summary of this investigation and its implications for Mexican and U.S. officials as both governments continue to discuss collaborations on border enforcement, migration and access to protection.

The legal reforms, driven by civil society, came into force in January 2021 and established two key changes: 

  1. The prohibition to hold migrant children, adolescents, and their families in migrant detention centers, which are de facto prisons. The law indicates that the children and their families must be placed in Social Assistance Centers (Centros de Asistencia Social, CAS) of the National Family Development System (Sistema Nacional para el Desarrollo Integral de la Familia, DIF) or in civil society shelters, while ensuring the non-separation of families. 
  2. The National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM) should refer each case to the legal offices for the protection of children and adolescents (Procuradurías de Protección de Niñas, Niños y Adolescentes). These offices should then conduct a case-by-case analysis and take action accordingly, such as referring the children to Mexico’s refugee agency (Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados, COMAR), reuniting them with family members, returning them to their country of origin, provided their lives are not in danger, or in the case the minor decides to stay in Mexico, referring them to an alternative protection pathway, like a host family or self-sufficiency preparation programs. 

Only 19 percent of migrant minors detained by INM were processed according to the new protection system.

Between January 2021 and May 2022, 98,671 minors were detained by INM and only 19,067 cases were processed by the legal offices for the protection of children and adolescents. The states with the greatest disparities of minors detained vs. minors processed under the new protection system include Baja California, with 15,498 minors detained and only 117 processed, and Tabasco, with 16,696 minors detained and only 283 processed. 

Of the 19 percent of minors who did go through the new system, in 55 percent of cases authorities deported them to their home countries. These include countries like Honduras, which is beset by high levels of gang control and violence and in 2017 registered the highest rate of child murders in the world. In less than one in 10 cases, authorities decided to reunite the minors with relatives in Mexico or to refer their case to COMAR. 

The investigation also revealed thousands of reported violations of the law through “collective” analyses of hundreds or even thousands of cases at a time in some states, despite the reform requiring case-by-case analysis. The majority of these “collective” cases resulted in mass deportation of youth to their country of origin. Additionally, the practice of holding minors in migrant detention centers or in annexes called “channeling centers” (centros de canalización) persists, in violation of the law, due to the lack of space in shelters. Those who do manage to access the new protection system can end up being stranded in shelters for up to nine months awaiting a response from authorities. 


The lack of budget and personnel in youth protection offices leaves migrant children and adolescents vulnerable.

The 2021 reform established that the Mexican government had to provide sufficient financial resources to the offices for the protection of children and adolescents to implement the law. But in 2021 and 2022, the majority of state offices suffered budget cuts. Of the few offices that received increases, the budget was still insufficient to support the number of youth arriving. 

Other key actors in the reform, such as COMAR and the National System for the Protection of Girls, Boys, and Adolescents (Sistema Nacional de Protección de Niñas, Niños y Adolescentes, SIPINNA), kept their budgets equal, while the INM budget rose. In 2022, INM had a budget 22 times higher than SIPINNA, 36 times higher than COMAR, and 40 times larger than that of the federal office for the protection of children and adolescents. To give an idea of personnel disparities, in 2022 Mexico’s budget supported 25,618 members of the Army, the National Guard, and the INM responsible for detaining migrants, and only 105 COMAR personnel directly funded by the Mexican government. Due to scarce resources, key authorities often find themselves with their “hands tied”, coupled with pressure from the INM for the policy of detention and deportation to prevail. Some stakeholders, including child protection officers, expressed fear of going against the INM’s priority of deporting minors in interviews with Animal Político. These circumstances seriously hamper compliance with the reform. 

The only protection agency that has registered notable budget increases is the DIF National System, with an increase of 100 percent, largely to remodel DIF shelters in the face of the massive arrival of accompanied and unaccompanied migrant minors. However, among the fifty interviews conducted for the investigation, activists, former officials, civil servants, and defenders of migrant rights expressed the same concern: that the DIF shelters become de facto detention centers, where deportation and abuse by officials are the norm. The investigation included interviews with children, and many of them revealed examples of abuse in INM detention centers. 

Girls, boys, and adolescents are deported to life-threatening violence.

The investigation highlights a number of children who were deported immediately upon entering Mexico to seek refuge. One such case was of two Honduran children fleeing gang violence after being forcibly recruited at young ages. The children and their parents were continuously manipulated and extorted by the gang through intimidation, which then escalated to the kidnapping, abuse, and rape of the daughter who was 13 at the time.  Following these events, the family sought refuge in Mexico. They were detained in Chiapas where the family recounted being held in a room for days and told without explanation that their official papers showing the criminal complaint they filed in Honduras “didn’t work” in Mexico. They were never made aware of a protection system or their right to seek refuge.

According to data from the Observatory on the Rights of Girls, Boys, and Youth in Honduras (Observatorio de Derechos de las Niñas, Niños y Jóvenes en Honduras), there were at least 209 violent deaths of children and youth in 2022. Between 1998 and October 2022, the Observatory has recorded at least 14,185 cases, an average of almost 600 children and young people under the age of 22 per year.

As a result of violent conditions, asylum requests by migrant minors in Mexico have skyrocketed. In 2021, a total of 31,455 children and adolescents requested asylum. Detentions of migrant minors, however, have also soared, with 77,608 in 2021 alone—another record number—of which 10,596 have already been deported to Honduras by the INM. The Honduran government, however, says that there were actually 12,194 deportations of minors, almost 1,600 more.

The U.S. and Mexico must collaborate to protect the right to asylum.

The data analyzed in the investigation show the urgent need for the Mexican government to ensure the implementation of its child protection laws, which 5 UN agencies had called “historical progress on rights.” 

While the Animal Político series documents severe gaps in the implementation of Mexico’s law, current U.S. border policies also put children at risk. While unaccompanied minors have been excluded from Title 42 expulsions and allowed to seek protection in the United States, Mexican children are frequently returned to Mexico without the opportunity to have their asylum claims heard before an immigration judge as the first determination of their protection needs is made by Customs and Border Protection or Border Patrol agents. The alarming accounts in a New York Times piece about labor exploitation of unaccompanied migrant minors in the U.S. and of authorities’ failure to keep track of over 85,000 unaccompanied minors once they were placed with a sponsor also underscores the urgent need to protect unaccompanied minors once they arrive in the U.S. 

At the same time, many asylum seekers, including families, have been expelled back to dangerous situations in Mexico without the opportunity to seek protection. The current system forces asylum seekers to request an appointment with U.S. authorities through the CBP One app, where there are growing accounts of difficulties faced by families to secure appointments for all members, leading to family separation.  

Both governments are failing to protect accompanied and unaccompanied migrant minors, and asylum seekers at large. Rather than pursuing policies focused primarily on deterrence, the U.S. and Mexican governments should collaborate to seek family reunification and protection of child and adolescent asylum seekers, including through due access to the asylum system wherever the child is located, as well as through reunification of unaccompanied migrant minors from Central America who are currently in Mexico when the best interest determination is that they should be united with the U.S.-based family members.

Summary and English translation by Ana Lucia Verduzco.