Since January, the U.S. government has ordered 13,000 migrants under 18, including more than 400 infants, to wait with their families in Mexico for U.S. immigration court hearings, a Reuters analysis of government data found.
Along the U.S.-Mexico border, babies and toddlers are living in high-crime cities – often in crowded shelters and tents or on the streets – for the weeks or months it takes to get a U.S. asylum hearing.
The risk of violence and illness runs high and is of particular concern for families with young children or those with chronic health conditions, according to interviews with health professionals, migrants, aid workers and advocates.
The children, whose numbers have not been previously reported, are among tens of thousands of migrants returned to Mexico under a Trump administration policy known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). Most are from Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador.
U.S. immigration officials did not respond to requests for comment on Reuters’ data findings.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, decisions about whether a person is placed in MPP are made by border agents on a case-by-case basis and include consultation with medical professionals. Unaccompanied minors should not be sent back to Mexico, according to the program guidelines, but children can be sent back with their parents.
Trump administration officials have said they are doing everything possible to discourage migrant families from making dangerous journeys to the United States, often in the hands of human smugglers, which they say needlessly put children at risk.
About one third of the nearly 40,000 migrants in the MPP program as of September 1 were children under 18, according to the latest data available from the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which oversees U.S. immigration courts. Of those, Reuters found more than 3,400 under 5 years old and 418 under 1 year old.
The numbers have grown in recent weeks. There are now more than 51,000 people in the MPP program, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Children under 5, and especially under the age of 2, are at high risk of serious flu complications, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and the flu season is about to start.
American doctors and nurses volunteering in Tijuana with the Refugee Health Alliance hope to be able to provide flu shots in a few of the shelters there, but the effort is hard to organize, said coordinator Phil Canete. The vaccines need to be stored in cold, regulated conditions, and the Mexican government requires a physician licensed in Mexico to supervise the effort, as well as signed consent for every patient, he said.
The U.S. government has said in guidance documents that migrants with known physical or mental health issues are not candidates for the MPP program. But advocates say it’s not clear what qualifies as a medical exemption from MPP.
Reuters found that fewer than 1% of migrants assigned to MPP have so far been transferred out of the program.
The U.S. government has signed a series of bilateral deals with the governments of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to push more people to seek asylum closer to home. In May, nearly 85,000 family units – parents with kids – were arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border, a monthly record. In August, the number of families arrested dropped by 70% after the administration ramped up MPP and other measures to deter migration.
U.S. President Donald Trump has said that lax U.S. asylum laws encourage people to show up at the border with their children. Before MPP, it was common practice to release arriving families into the United States to wait out their U.S. court hearings – something Trump and others said allowed many migrants to disappear into the country to live illegally.