Migrant families have sent approximately 135 children across the US-Mexico border alone after waiting in squalid and unsafe conditions in Mexico as a result of a Trump administration policy.
The US Department of Health and Human Services told CNN it has identified approximately 135 children in their custody who previously arrived at the southern border with their family and had been returned to Mexico.
In recent weeks, some case managers who work with unaccompanied children began hearing stories from kids who were in Mexico with family members and have since crossed alone, according to a source close to the situation.
A four-year old girl recalled her grandmother sitting her down and explaining she had to cross the border alone, according to a source familiar with these cases. Case managers, who are employed by shelters that work with the Health and Human Services Department, were eventually able to connect with the grandmother in Mexico who explained she worried for her and her granddaughter’s safety.
In another instance, an 8-year-old boy crossed the border alone this month after roughly two months in Mexico with his father.
“Parents are sending their kids in order for them to find refuge. We’re forcing them to separate in order for them to care for their children,” the source said, referring to the policy.
The number of children being sent across the border alone suggests the administration’s policy of requiring some migrants to remain in Mexico while their immigration cases play out in the US – a process that could take weeks or months – could be having unanticipated and dangerous consequences.
Roughly 60,000 migrants are currently in Mexico as a result of the policy, formally known as the Migrant Protection Protocols. Administration officials have credited the policy for helping curb the flow of migrants to the border. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf recently called it a “game changer.”
Immigrant advocates and lawyers say the program puts migrants, many of whom are from Central America, in harm’s way and made it more difficult for migrants to obtain counsel for their proceedings. The policy has also been challenged in federal court, but allowed to proceed for the time being.
“Families are being forced to make the decision of being the ones to separate from their child for the safety – potentially the livelihood – of their child. How do you explain that to a five year old?” said Nate Bult, vice president of public and government affairs at Bethany Christian Services, which works with unaccompanied children.
Unaccompanied children are exempt from the so-called “Remain in Mexico” policy, which means children that cross the border are taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security and referred to US Health and Human Services. While in care, case managers work to place a child with a sponsor in the United States, like a parent or relative.
Congressional staffers asked the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an agency within Health and Human Services that cares for unaccompanied children, to identify how many children were in its care who had previously been enrolled in the “Remain in Mexico” program.
The office’s records “indicate that from October 2019 to approximately November 19, 2019, 135 children who fall into this category were referred by DHS,” HHS told CNN, adding that the figure is being reconciled with the Department of Homeland Security, which is charged with implementing the policy.
HHS said it began tracking referrals of children whose parents may fall under the policy in October to ensure children were able to communicate with their parents.
In a statement provided to CNN, a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said, “It would be extremely troubling to find that parents are sending their children on a dangerous journey to illegally enter the US alone or in the hands of smugglers, rather than remain in expeditious proceedings that can yield results in a matter of months.”
The spokesperson added, “Until Congress acts with targeted legislative fixes that allow DHS to safely return (unaccompanied minors) to noncontiguous countries or hear their asylum claims before making the journey, parents will continue to use their children to exploit legal vulnerabilities in our immigration system.”
The administration continues to expand its policy of sending migrants back to Mexico while they wait for their court date in the US.
The most recent expansion plans include busing migrants from Tucson, Arizona, to El Paso, Texas, according to two officials. The Department of Homeland Security says El Paso has the infrastructure to handle the migrants, but in practice, it means migrants would be taken more than 300 miles from where they initially crossed the border, and eventually returned to Mexico from El Paso.
Many shelters along the border have been overwhelmed by the number of migrants waiting for their turn in court and in some areas, makeshift tent camps have cropped up in Mexico.