By Joshua Partlow
March 11, 2015
LAREDO, Tex. — Last spring, as Central American children flooded into Texas in a way he had never seen in his three-decade career, Border Patrol agent Robert Harris decided to experiment.
His intelligence analysts estimated that 78 percent of the guides smuggling other migrants were Mexicans younger than 18 — teenagers often hired or conscripted by drug cartels that knew they would not be prosecuted if caught — and he wanted to attack this loophole.
“Why don’t we remove these juveniles from the smuggling cycle?” Harris, the outgoing commander of the Laredo sector of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, recalled thinking.
Now, as a result of that decision, young Mexicans are being held for months without charge in shelters across the United States, sometimes without their parents’ knowledge. Since the program began in May, 536 juveniles have been held — 248 of whom have been deported to Mexico after an average stay of 75 days, according to Border Patrol statistics. Mexican authorities say some of these repeat border-crossers have spent as much as six months in U.S. custody while they await an appearance before an immigration judge.
During their detention, they are questioned by U.S. authorities and then transferred to a network of facilities run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, across 15 states. While confined, they undergo psychological evaluations and take English courses. Some are allowed tourist-type activities, such as going to the beach or museums, according to Mexican consular officials in Texas. At least one youth earned a high school general equivalency diploma.
Two U.S. Border Patrol agents patrol the banks of the Rio Grande on Feb. 12 in Laredo, Tex. (Jonathan Levinson/For the Washington Post)
“We haven’t heard of any mistreatment,” said Erasmo R. Martinez, Mexico’s consul in McAllen, Tex.
But the little-known program, called the Juvenile Referral Process, has worried human rights groups and some Mexican officials who fear that it puts the children at risk. They view it as a way for U.S. authorities to gather intelligence about cartels and think it endangers the children who could be targeted as informants when they return to Mexico. Some question the legality of the extended detentions.
“Our concern is that the program’s real intent is to interrogate the kids,” said Maureen Meyer, an expert on Mexico and migrants at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). The kids are “often questioned about the criminal groups they are working for and then subsequently returned to Mexico with no apparent concern about the implications for them.”