TIJUANA, Mexico – A Honduran teenager walked up the sidewalk to a Border Patrol agent at the Otay Mesa Point of Entry in Tijuana. “I am afraid for my safety and want asylum,” he said.
Seven more boys — aged 15 to 17 — stood behind him waiting to do the same. To their left, a long line of cars inched forward slowly, the drivers waiting their turn to pass into San Diego. It was only 7:30 p.m. but already pitch-dark. On the advice of their lawyers, the boys had come at night to avoid pedestrian traffic, and, they hoped, Mexican officials.
“Back up,” the U.S. agents said, as they formed a line blocking entry into the gated area that marked American soil. The agents said they had no capacity to accept asylum seekers and the kids had to go elsewhere.
Every year, thousands of children and teenagers traveling alone from Central America have turned themselves in to agents along the Southwest border and asked for asylum. Even as the number of overall asylum claims surged in recent years — generating a waitlist of more than 5,000 people in Tijuana alone — unaccompanied children generally skipped the list and were allowed to enter the U.S. and seek protection. But now, some are being stopped by U.S. Border Patrol agents and carted off by Mexican officials, without receiving any kind of due process.
“In telling asylum-seeking minors to ‘back up’ off U.S. territory and physically blocking their access to the port of entry, the United States is violating national and international law,” said Anna Joseph, an attorney with the Mexico City-based Institute for Women in Migration who accompanied the teenagers to the border last week.
By forcing them back, border agents were effectively preventing the boys from legally seeking asylum in the U.S. They said because the boys were on Mexican territory that Mexican police had the right to deal with them however they wanted, including arresting them for loitering.
The rejection of the children represents an even tougher stance in the U.S.’ position toward asylum seekers.
“Some of the most vulnerable ... are being illegally turned away at the U.S.-Mexico border.”
“They are some of the most vulnerable of the now thousands of people who are being illegally turned away at the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Brian Griffey with Amnesty International. “The U.S. authorities should uniformly act lawfully and let these kids in. They are exposing them to unimaginable risk of harm by pushing them back into Mexico.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection doesn’t distinguish between children and adults seeking asylum at the border. The extra protections for unaccompanied minors — like less time in detention and more chances to seek asylum — kick in once they set foot on U.S. soil.
Asked whether Border Patrol agents are turning away unaccompanied minors, the agency’s press office responded: “No one is being denied the opportunity to make a claim of credible fear or seek asylum … individuals presenting without documents may be directed to a nearby facility where their processing will take place. This allows CBP to coordinate with Mexican officials and work through an established process where each individual is processed in the order that they arrive.”
While no one knows for sure how many unaccompanied minors traveled with the migrant caravan, some estimate 100 to 200 children and teenagers traveled alone from Honduras and El Salvador and are now in Tijuana, many without documents.
Most are boys, but there are some girls, too. Like Marlin, 17, who said she joined the caravan because she was being followed and harassed by an older man in Honduras. She said the man wouldn’t leave her alone and the police wouldn’t stop him.
Marlin traveled alone to Tijuana, and then a lawyer brought her to a shelter for minors. She wants to reach the U.S., to a place where the man can’t find her. When we talked to her, she was wearing a pink sweatshirt that said “Lonely Hearts Club.” She picked it out from a donated pile of clothes because she liked the color and the lettering. “What’s it mean?” she asked.
By turning away unaccompanied teen migrants at the ports of entry, CBP is essentially giving them two options: They can cross illegally into the U.S., or add their names to a waitlist of more than 5,000 migrants waiting in Tijuana to legally present themselves for asylum in the U.S.
The problem is that many of the children and teenagers can’t get on that list because they lack the original identification documents required to add their name. And even if they have the documents to sign up, adding their name to the list puts them at risk of being taken to juvenile detention in Mexico and then deported back to their home country “in their own best interest.”
After the U.S. Border Patrol agents refused to let the boys pass at Otay Mesa, Mexican police lined them up against a wall on the narrow sidewalk leading up to the border crossing. Mexican immigration officials scolded them for trying to enter the U.S.
The boys’ volunteer attorneys, meanwhile, tried to negotiate with U.S. Border Patrol agents to let the boys onto U.S. soil so they could apply for asylum. They got nowhere. A tense standoff followed, as Mexican immigration agents told the American lawyers they were in Mexico illegally and forced them to cross the border back into the U.S. Eventually, Mexican officials hauled the boys off and returned them to the shelter where they were staying before they attempted to cross.
Many are 17, just months away from legally being considered an adult. That puts them in a precarious position, as they have a better chance of winning legal status in the U.S. if they enter as minors.
In addition to asylum, they could also qualify for what’s known as special immigrant juvenile status, which would allow them to obtain a green card if they had been abused, abandoned or neglected by one or both parents.
“An unaccompanied child who expresses any kind of fear of being sent back has much greater chances of prevailing in their case than an adult,” said Niloufar Khonsari, executive director of Pangea Legal Services, a San Francisco-based immigration nonprofit.
For now, the kids from the caravan are waiting, largely unaware of the extent to which their fate rests in their ability to reach the U.S. before they turn 18.
At the youth shelter, they play on their cell phones and lounge around on couches. The vibe is jovial, but many have harrowing personal stories.
Dilmer, 17, was among the teenage boys refused entry into the U.S. He said the experience was humiliating and terrifying – because he was worried he was going to be deported back to Honduras. He said his older brother had been murdered, and now the same people were after him.
“My parents sent me here because they wanted to keep me alive,” he said. “If I hadn’t left, I would be dead.”
Cover: Marlin sits in a shelter for homeless immigrant minors in Tijuana. (Photo: Emily Green/VICE News)