MEXICO CITY — In a sweeping change to its immigration practices, Mexico has stopped holding migrant children and their families in detention centers, bowing to international pressure from human rights groups that criticized the practice as inhumane.
The reform, which took effect this week, also gives migrant children temporary legal status in Mexico in order to avoid immediate deportation and allow time for them to seek legal avenues for staying in the country.
The change comes on the heels of unprecedented levels of migrants both traversing through and attempting to stay in Mexico in recent years, leading to pressure on officials to come up with a better system for dealing with children fleeing violence and poverty.
In 2019, nearly 12,000 unaccompanied children, and 40,000 children accompanied by adults, were held in immigration detention centers in Mexico, according to government figures. Under the reform, the children and their family members will now be the responsibility of Mexico’s family development agency.
In a statement, the United Nations described the reform as an “historic advance in the area of human rights.”
“The implementation of the reforms will help strengthen the system of childhood protection, benefiting the girls, boys and adolescents in the context of human mobility, by guaranteeing them comprehensive compliance with their rights and making their best interest central,” the agency said in a statement.
Mexico’s immigration agency, which runs detention centers, opposed the reform because it argued that it would incentivize more families to seek refuge in Mexico, knowing they could avoid immediate deportation.
But Rosalba Rivera, Migrant Childhood Coordinator at the Institute for Women in Migration, dismissed the critique.
“Children and families are going to continue coming, regardless of whether this law exists or not, because they can’t continue living in their countries of origin,” she said. “It’s great that they can escape these horrible circumstances and that Mexico can be a place of dignity and respect for them.”
The reform is evidence that Mexico has a more progressive policy toward migrant children than the United States. Unaccompanied minors in the United States have generally been sent to shelters, and those children traveling with families held in detention centers for no longer than 20 days. But since March, thousands of migrant children have been summarily expelled from the U.S. under the justification that they are a health risk.
Still, questions remain around how Mexico will come up with the capacity to care for potentially thousands of migrant children and their families.
“It’s a major step, but now the big challenge is how they will implement it,” said Josep Herreros, senior protection officer at the United Nations Refugee Agency in Mexico City.