Recently, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report regarding the care of unaccompanied migrant children by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The GAO report entitled Unaccompanied Alien Children: Actions Needed to Ensure Children Receive Required Care in DHS Custody, found that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents have not consistently screened unaccompanied Mexican children in their custody for trafficking. Mexican unaccompanied migrant children are particularly vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation as they are often recruited to be drug mules or are fleeing gang recruitment or intimidation. As such, the screening at the U.S./Mexico border is extremely important. The lack of consistent trafficking screening of Mexican unaccompanied migrant children raises concern about the prevalence of trafficking in this population and signals a need for reform.
As reported last year on HTS, unaccompanied migrant children face one of two processes when they arrive in the custody of the US government. Which process an unaccompanied migrant child receives depends on the child’s country of origin. Unaccompanied children from countries other than Mexico or Canada who are apprehended at the border are turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement to be either reunited with family members in the United States or placed in foster care while waiting to appear at an immigration hearing and consult with an advocate. These protections increase the likelihood that authorities would discover a child’s viable claim to asylum, as a trafficking victim, or other form of immigration relief.
In contrast, unaccompanied migrant children from countries contiguous to the United States, Mexico or Canada, are only entitled to minimal protections. Per the requirements of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), immediately after being apprehended, a child from Mexico or Canada is given a simple screening by a Border Patrol agent to determine whether they are at risk of severe form of human trafficking or have a fear of return, and that they are capable of making decisions. The child may be sent back to their home country on the same day he or she was apprehended and must be returned within 48 hours if no evidence of trafficking or fear of return or incapacity has been found. This short and immediate screening conducted by CBP is not enough and endangers unaccompanied Mexican migrant children who are vulnerable to human trafficking.
The GAO report highlights that CBP officers are not child protection and human trafficking experts but law enforcement officers. Border Patrol officers do not have the expertise to fully and appropriately screen children for human trafficking and need assistance in doing so. Inconsistent screening results in misidentification of child trafficking victims as was recently experienced by a group of girls from Mexico who were caught and repatriated by U.S. immigration forces multiple times before they were later discovered by U.S. police as victims of a sex trafficking ring. CBP had repeatedly failed to identify these girls as victims being transported by their traffickers. In short, they were ill-equipped to prevent and respond to child trafficking.
In a positive first step, the new GAO report recommends improved human trafficking screening for Mexican unaccompanied migrant children. The report instructs DHS to revise the form that is used to screen Mexican unaccompanied children, to implement better training for officers, and to make the officers better document their findings. With intergovernmental investigative efforts like the GAO Report calling for reform, there is hope that CBP will reform its trafficking screening practices and will work to better ensure the prevention of future incidents of child trafficking at the U.S./Mexico border and will better identify and protect Mexican migrant child trafficking victims.
Ashley Feasley is a Migration Policy Advisor at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.
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