PHOENIX Thousands of unaccompanied children caught crossing illegally into the United States from Mexico are at risk of abuse despite a law passed in 2008 seeking to protect them, according to a study.
The report, "Children at the Border: The Screening, Protection and Repatriation of Unaccompanied Mexican Minors," was released this week by Appleseed and Mexico Appleseed, which network 16 public interest justice centers in the United States and Mexico seeking to ensure universal access to the law.
The study looked at the implementation of a U.S. federal law to protect children from human trafficking and exploitation.
It said an estimated 15,000 unaccompanied minors cross the U.S. border each year from Mexico, many looking for work or trying to reunite with family members stateside, while others seek to escape violence, abuse, or neglect.
Under the law, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is required to interview each minor who crosses the border without a parent or guardian to ensure that they are not at risk from trafficking or exploitation, and can make an independent decision to return home, the study said.
But despite these safeguards, the study said children were routinely repatriated through a "revolving door" without adequate scrutiny into their circumstances by Customs and Border Protection officers, who anyway lacked special training in child welfare.
"This screening requires the agency to interview children to determine whether they have been trafficked, fear persecution, and can make an independent decision to return to Mexico," it said.
"CBP, however, is a law enforcement agency charged with detecting and apprehending undocumented aliens at the border; it has no child welfare expertise. CBP officers are ill-equipped to conduct the kind of child-centric interviewing required" by the law, it added.
In a statement, CBP said the Department of Homeland Security was "committed to upholding the law by ensuring a stringent screening process for unaccompanied alien children to help identify and protect victims of human trafficking."
"We work closely with the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure the integrity of this process and provide for the care and custody of these minors," it added.
The study was also critical of Mexico, which it said does not have uniform laws or policies governing the rights of migrating minors or the responsibilities of the agencies that assume their custody them after following repatriation.
The report drew on the pro bono contributions of a team of 32 lawyers and legal assistants, In 2009 and 2010, members of the team conducted site visits at 14 different locations in the United States and Mexico.
(Editing by Jerry Norton)