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Guatemalan migrants turn themselves over to U.S. authorities

A girl looks on as migrants from Guatemala remove their shoelaces after turning themselves over to authorities at the U.S.-Mexico border on May 12, 2021 in Yuma, Arizona. (Photo: Ringo Chiu/AFP via Getty Images)

'Dangerous and Unconscionable': Amnesty Finds Biden Is Illegally Expelling Thousands of Unaccompanied Children

"The Biden administration is summarily returning almost all unaccompanied Mexican children just hours after they seek safe haven, often without considering the risks they could face upon return."

Jake Johnson

A detailed new report by Amnesty International finds that the Biden administration is abusing an anti-trafficking law to forcibly expel thousands of unaccompanied Mexican children seeking asylum at the United States' southern border, often sending them back to dangerous conditions without adequately screening for threats to their safety.

Titled Pushed Into Harm's Way, the 50-page report (pdf) released Friday documents the Biden administration's effective continuation of its predecessor's policy of rejecting nearly all asylum-seekers at official ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Though Biden immigration authorities have largely stopped applying to unaccompanied children a Trump-era Title 42 policy that used the pandemic as a pretext to expel migrants, the new administration is "misusing a provision of anti-trafficking legislation concerning Mexican unaccompanied children to deprive them of effective screenings for harm and to deny them access to asylum procedures," Amnesty alleges.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) requires U.S. officials to screen unaccompanied children to confirm they are not victims of human trafficking and ensure that returning them to their home country would not threaten their safety.

As The Intercept's Ryan Devereaux reported Friday, "Since 2006, when the so-called war on drugs became a military campaign in Mexico, more than 400,000 people have been killed."

"Large regions of the country are frequently home to rampant violence and impunity," Devereaux continued. "Many border cities in the north of the country, the localities where the U.S. removes people to on a regular basis, are among the most dangerous, particularly for migrants and asylum-seekers who are often targets of extortion and kidnapping."

But despite the requirements under TVPRA, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials "are often not performing child-protection screenings faithfully, appropriately, or with reasonable informed consent of the children, who often do not understand what is happening during the process," Amnesty's report notes.

"The Biden administration is summarily returning almost all unaccompanied Mexican children just hours after they seek safe haven, often without considering the risks they could face upon return," Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

The new report comes days after Vice President Kamala Harris, during a visit to Guatemala, explicitly warned would-be migrants not to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border in search of refuge, telling them they "will be turned back."

"Do not come," said Harris.

Vedant Patel, assistant White House press secretary and a Biden immigration adviser, sent a similar message when speaking to reporters last month.

"The policy right now for Mexican unaccompanied minors is for them to be repatriated," said Patel, using a euphemism for forced expulsion.

Amnesty says in its report that "since January 2021, the Biden administration has continued to exempt only unaccompanied migrant children from the [Trump-era Title 42] policy, pushing families to make an impossible choice."

The report continues:

Likely thousands of children have had to separate from their asylum-seeking parents in order to escape dangerous border regions of northern Mexico, and have then crossed the border alone, since they would otherwise be deported as a family if their parents crossed with them. In addition to compelling families to separate unnecessarily, U.S. border authorities still reportedly turn unaccompanied children away at some of the most heavily trafficked official ports-of-entry and deny them access to asylum procedures. Despite their legal right to request protection at ports-of-entry, the vast majority of unaccompanied children instead take dangerous journeys across the open border—often at the mercy of smugglers.

Now, while unaccompanied children are no longer subjected to mass expulsions under Title 42, U.S. border authorities are still immediately returning the vast majority of unaccompanied Mexican children who enter the USA.

In an interview with Amnesty researchers, the director of the border rights program at the legal services organization Al Otro Lado recounted the story of an unaccompanied boy from Mexico whom CBP officials were attempting to expel this past March.

"He was held in CBP custody six to eight days and was not given the opportunity to call his family or me his lawyer, despite the fact that I entered a G28 [legal representation form] and requested that he be permitted to contact his uncle in California," the advocate said. "His family sent him alone and his parents were in hiding in Mexico. They feared the whole family would be sent back, which is why they sent him alone."

According to Amnesty, the boy was "ultimately held in CBP custody for seven days (more than double the legally permitted time) before being transferred to [the Office of Refugee Resettlement], from whose custody he was released to a close family member in the United States. As of May 2021, his family remained in hiding in Mexico, unable to request asylum protection with their son due to the Biden administration's retention of the Title 42 policy."

The Biden administration's policy of turning away most unaccompanied children amounts to a "systematic" violation of their right to seek asylum, Amnesty says, casting further doubt on President Joe Biden's promise to create a more humane immigration system in contrast to the overt cruelty of the Trump era.

The humanitarian group's report also shows that Mexican authorities are deporting the "vast majority" of unaccompanied children that arrive from Central American nations seeking safety from violence and persecution.

"These are dangerous and unconscionable policies," said Amnesty's Guevara-Rosas. "The United States and Mexico must stop denying unaccompanied children their universal human rights to seek asylum and to family unity, no matter where they're from."

Specifically, Amnesty is calling on Biden to immediately withdraw the Trump administration's Title 42 rule, order CBP to stop rejecting asylum-seeking children at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, and "swiftly facilitate all asylum claims by unaccompanied children—irrespective of their nationality—and their expeditious release to family members or other sponsors in the USA."

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