Tijuana, Mexico – The murder of two Honduran teens in the Mexican border city of Tijuana over the weekend represents a tragic example of how the delays in asylum processing are putting unaccompanied minors in harm’s way, rights groups say.
The teens, aged 16 and 17, were kidnapped not far from a youth shelter, before being strangled and stabbed to death, police said earlier this week. A third teen was able to escape.
Mexico’s human rights commission has called for a thorough investigation of the murders by all levels of government.
On Wednesday, police said that at least three people have been arrested in connection with the murders.
“It’s a very painful time for everyone here,” said Uriel Gonzalez, director of the migrant youth shelter where the two slain teens stayed.
Under Mexican law, unaccompanied minors must stay in shelters run by the Mexican System for Integral Family Development, but the institute doesn’t have the capacity to house the thousands of children now in Mexico. Mexican government officials have placed many unaccompanied children into foster care or have deported them all together.
According to Gonzalez, the two teens had arrived at the youth shelter about three weeks ago.
The day they left the shelter they didn’t let volunteers know they were stepping out, a policy the shelter director said is well established among the youth staying here. But Gonzalez added the shelter has an open-door policy and teens are allowed to travel to ports of entry to petition for asylum.
The killings highlight the dangers migrants and refugees, particularly youth, face in the city, rights groups say. And with Thursday’s announcement that the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plans to send many asylum seekers back to Mexico while they await a decision on their request, advocates fear the dangers will only become worse.
The United States uses a practice known as metering to limit the number of asylum seekers who are able to file their request each day. The practice has been slammed by rights groups, who accuse the US government of creating a bottleneck of migrants and refugees at the border – an allegation US officials have denied. According to rights groups, metering means asylum seekers may have to wait months before being able to submit their requests.
Those who have been turned away include unaccompanied minors.
This week, US border officials blocked 15 Honduran migrants, including eight unaccompanied children, from seeking asylum at the Otay Mesa port of entry. Members of Congress waited for four hours until US authorities allowed the children to place their asylum claims.
Border patrol has turned away at least five unaccompanied minors at the San Ysidro port of entry since April, according to an Amnesty International report.
“The more time they spend in this limbo, the more they’re susceptible to two things: growing desperation and violence like this because these are essentially defenceless children,” said Gonzalez.
DHS did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment at the time of publication, and Customs and Border Protection could not be reached.
In announcing the new practice of sending asylum seekers back to Mexico on Thursday, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen offered little detail about how the policy will work.
“We want to discourage those who are claiming asylum fraudulently,” she said, describing the plan.
She added that policy will not apply to unaccompanied minors, who are offered special protections under US immigration law.
Despite the guarantee for young people, Jaya Ramji-Nogales, an expert on asylum adjudication at Temple University, said the Trump administration’s attack on asylum is having a negative effect on asylum seekers in Tijuana.
“These unaccompanied minors presumably, had they made it to the border, would have presented themselves and asked for some kind of protection,” she said, referring to the two young Honduran teens who were killed.
But instead, children must wait, she said. And for those who are escaping threats and sexual violence, the wait in Tijuana only presents new and dangerous challenges. “You can see just how harmful this is to these vulnerable kids,” she said.