As the United States begins to figure out how to reunify migrant children it separated from their families during the Trump administration, they need to take a lesson from Mexico. Mexico is now implementing a new law that prohibits the detention of migrant children and families.
The law was passed in November of last year. Implementation has been uneven, which is not surprising as it requires changes in infrastructure and bureaucracy.
While execution is imperfect, Mexico is implementing the right idea. For years experts have been saying that detaining children, just because they are migrants, is not in the best interest of the child. Unnecessary detention hurts kids.
According to an article by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Detaining children harms their physical and psychological well-being. It has adverse effects on their development; might aggravate trauma experienced before arriving in the transit or destination country; and the constant control and surveillance they are subjected to may be very disturbing for them, increasing already high levels of mental distress.”
According to François Crépeau, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, “Detention is never ever in the best interest of a child.”
In the policy advocacy profession, it is recognized that changing policy in one jurisdiction can produce a positive spill-over effect in another. We are starting to see this law impact the United States.
Under a rationale supposedly aimed at stopping people with Covid-19 from entering the United States, migrants and asylum seekers are blocked from entering the US and pushed back into Mexico. Implemented during the Trump Administration, but so far not reversed by the Biden Administration, this policy is an easy excuse to just say no.
Since the new Mexican law does not allow for the detention of children and families, Mexico has started pushing back on the United States. In the US, Covid-19 restrictions have limited detention capacity, so when Mexico refuses to take people back, there is a greater chance that the US. will have to release migrants pending their court dates. The result of Mexico’s new law is limiting the detention of migrant families in the US.
Immigrant advocates in the US. have been pushing for this country to use a case management strategy for released migrant families as an alternative to detention. Pilot projects have proven that these strategies can be effective and that migrants keep their court dates.
The implementation of Mexico’s law stopping the detention of migrant children and families is a great example of how respectful humanitarian migration policies in one country can have a positive impact on its neighbors. Let’s hope that’s the US takes Mexico’s lead and makes more humane approaches to migration the policy of the United States.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson