On paper, Mexico has one of the most ambitious and radical immigration reforms in Latin America. A new law went into effect January 2021 and it set new guidelines for how the country processes children and teenagers.

But since the law has been in place, some have questioned whether the system is working as it should for the thousands of kids who come into Mexico. This includes both migrant children from other countries and Mexican nationals repatriated back to the country without a parent or guardian.

Loading the player...

“When it comes to children in that legal system, there is often a transgression of their rights,” Wendy Castro, a lawyer with the immigration rights group Sin Fronteras, told mitú.

Between January and September of this year, 19,506 Mexican children have been repatriated back to Mexico from the United States, according to the National Migration Institute (INM). Of those, 12,294 are unaccompanied and processed under the new guidelines.

What does the 2021 law say about migrant kids and teenagers?

Under Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s administration, the law established that detention centers in Mexico would no longer house migrant children. Before the law passed, this was usually the first place for anybody crossing into Mexico.

Now, the INM must refer Mexican and non-Mexican minors to the National Family Development System (DIF in Spanish). While their cases move through the system, these minors live in Social Assistance Shelters.

The Mexican government has legal offices set up throughout the country, at both the state and local level, dedicated to protecting kids and teenagers. The 2021 law also states that these offices must conduct a case-by-case analysis of each child to determine the next steps. Before, INM was in charge of this decision.

“The INM has to refer these cases to both DIF and to the appropriate legal offices in order for us to properly intervene,” said Oliver Castañeda Correa, who heads the Federal Office for the Protection of Girls, Boys and Adolescents. “They are not detained or arrested. It is so we can determine the best outcome for their case.”

For Mexican children, this means finding a family member to reunite them with. “In the extreme case that there is nobody for us to send them to, we start the adoption process,” said Castañeda.

For non-Mexican kids, this could mean they refer the child to Mexico’s refugee agency, reunite them with family members, return them to their country of origin (if there is no danger to their lives), or provide them with other resources if they are unable to leave the country. 

Some have found evidence that it’s not working on the ground

A 2022 investigation by the Mexican outlet Animal Politico found that officials are not executing this policy as it should.

The investigation found that between January 21, 2021, and May 22, 2022, the INM detained 98,671 migrant children. But only 19 percent were processed according to the new system.

According to documents obtained by Animal Politico, there have been thousands of violations of the law. Of that 19 percent, 55 percent were sent back to their home countries despite there being evidence of high levels of gang control and violence. Interviews with ex-officials indicate that some minors are still in migrant detention centers due to lack of shelter space.

The federal government has given money to states to renovate their shelters and update their systems

In response to this criticism, Castañeda admits that the DIF system was not prepared to receive the growing population of migrant and Mexican children.

“This legal reform did not bring with it the proper resources to implement it,” he said. “It’s been a process of almost three years to build the proper infrastructure and hire the personnel to give these children the proper attention.”

Castro says both the state and federal government have been slow to implement these changes. She used to work in one of the state offices in Oaxaca for the protection of kids and adolescents. She knows firsthand how under-resources these offices can be.

“These offices don’t always have the proper tools to explain to kids and minors what is actually happening, where they are, what legal procedures they’re undergoing and what the consequences might be,” she said.

But, Castañeda said that the government is still working on updating the system. He pointed to funds that are being sent to states to build out their centers. For example, the state of Quintana Roo announced last month 45 million pesos to renovate their shelters for minors. This money isn’t just for infrastructure, Castañeda said. It’s also for training and hiring the proper personnel, especially as the number of migrants traveling through Mexico to the U.S. increases.

“The real crisis is the lack of response from the government to migratory patterns that have been happening for years,” said Castro, who is still waiting to see how this money will affect the situation on the ground.