Even as states were seeking to enact tougher immigration laws, Border Patrol agents in the southern U.S. saw an increase in the number of children attempting to enter the country from Mexico — many unaccompanied.
About 3,000 juveniles were repatriated to Mexico from Nogales between January and September last year, according to Alfonso Vera Sanchez, Mexican consul for protection at the Nogales Mexican consulate.
“We have the biggest number of unaccompanied minors repatriated every day,” Sanchez says, adding that some of the babies are only months old.
The numbers have not significantly changed since September 2010.
On the whole, there has been a drop in the number of immigrants crossing into the U.S. illegally as more checkpoints have been set up along the border. Border Patrol personnel posted in Nogales reported a 17 percent drop in apprehensions from 2008-09; that is down to about 30 per day from about 100, according to agent Richard Funke.
“Nogales was for a long time a hotspot for illegal immigrants until the last two years,” Funke says.
Despite this drop, the increasing number of children coming in is still a problem. Most of the population in Nogales has some migratory status, whether legal or not. Hispanics make up about 30 percent of the Arizona population, according to U.S. Census figures, and many of them have family ties in Mexico.
In the past, undocumented immigrants were able to go back to Mexico and see their families and then re-enter the U.S. With increased security at the border and tougher laws, more undocumented immigrants are afraid to go back home for fear of being denied re-entry.
Even when someone was repatriated, it was mostly voluntary and would not go onto his or her records. Now, apprehended immigrants are fingerprinted and photographed, and records are kept on who was sent back. Undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., therefore, stay permanently and the only way to reunite with their children is to have them brought into the country.
“The problem is that once the mother or father goes to get their child, they don’t have papers, so they get repatriated,” Sanchez says.
According to Funke, if a family is apprehended the father is put into the males’ cell and the woman into the females’ cell with the child if he or she is below 14. Children older than 14 are taken to a separate juvenile cell where they are fingerprinted and photographed.
Agents say the children are well care for before they interviewed by Mexican consulate officials to make sure they were not being trafficked. “We have to provide hot meals for the children and give them anything they want,” Funke says.
Besides children, the Mexican consulate in Nogales, which is responsible for repatriating the vulnerable, has also seen an increase in missing persons, some of whom are found alive but many of whom die in the desert. The city is laced with billboards of missing persons. Funke also says that they are increasingly seeing more people with criminal histories attempting to come into the U.S.
The Mexican government is stepping up its efforts to educate its nationals on the dangers involved in crossing to the U.S. illegally. Sanchez says that the strategy of the Mexican Department of Foreign Affairs is to increase preventive action in educating its nationals.
“The Mexican government is obviously aware that the migration problem is because of underdevelopment in our country, and we are trying to improve our economy, but as long as we have so much differences between our economies, there is always going to be immigrants,” he says.
Elvina Nawaguna-Clemente is a graduate student in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.