U.S. migrant policy sends thousands of children, including hundreds of babies, back to Mexico

TIJUANA, Mexico, Oct 11 (Reuters) - 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.

NUMBERS GROWING AS FLU SEASON LOOMS

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.

Blanca Aguilar, a 27-year-old mother from Guatemala, is living in a makeshift encampment of around 40 small tents cramped together in the back rooms of a church outside Tijuana, across the border from San Diego. Children can be heard coughing and crying throughout the night, she and other mothers told Reuters during a recent visit.

When one gets sick, they all do, Aguilar said. Her two-year-old son Adrian has had a recurrent cough with wheezing, as well as bouts of diarrhea, since they arrived in August.

"He's been sick a lot," she said, adding that she suspects he may be developing asthma.

Another mother at the same shelter, 34-year-old Marla Suniga from Honduras, said her 1-year-old daughter Montserrat recently had a convulsion due to a high fever and had to be taken to a hospital. "She couldn't breathe," she said.

Suniga said she fled violence in her home country but plans to return there because she fears for her daughter's life in Tijuana.

DHS said it could not comment on individual cases. Mexican officials did not respond to requests for comment on the conditions in migrant shelters.

Reuters was unable to corroborate the diagnoses of the Suniga and Aguilar children. Doctors and nurses visiting shelters and camps in Mexican border towns, however, told Reuters they have seen cases of chicken pox, scabies, respiratory infections, skin rashes, eye infections and gastrointestinal issues among children and adults.

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.

Jennifer Jimenez, a 30-year-old Salvadoran, said she arrived at the border in July with 11-year-old twins and her eight-month-old son Jacob, who was born with lungs that had not fully developed.

Although she explained Jacob's condition to border agents, she said, the agents sent her and her children back to Ciudad Juarez, where the family ended up sleeping on the floor of a crowded shelter.

Recently she managed to find a doctor who noted in Jacob's medical records - seen by Reuters - that living in the shelter had complicated his health care. U.S. officials recently admitted the family to stay with relatives in the United States, a rare occurrence.

Reuters found that fewer than 1% of migrants assigned to MPP have so far been transferred out of the program.

19 PHOTOS
Migrants in Tijuana trickling over and under the border wall
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Migrants in Tijuana trickling over and under the border wall
Honduran migrant Joel Mendez, 22, passes his eight-month-old son Daniel through a hole under the U.S. border wall to his partner, Yesenia Martinez, 24, who had already crossed in Tijuana, Mexico, Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. Moments later Martinez surrendered to waiting border guards while Mendez stayed behind in Tijuana to work, saying he feared he'd be deported if he crossed. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Central American migrants planning to surrender to U.S. border patrol agents climb over the U.S. border wall from Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, late Monday, Dec. 3, 2018. Thousands of migrants are living in crowded tent cities in the Mexican city of Tijuana after undertaking a grueling, weeks-long journey to the U.S. border. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
In a photo taken from Playas of Tijuana, Mexico, Honduran migrants climb over a section of the U.S. border fence before handing themselves in to border control agents, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018. A steady trickle of Central American migrants have been finding ways to climb over, tunnel under or slip through the U.S. border wall to plant their feet on U.S. soil and ask for asylum. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Honduran migrants who jumped the border wall to the U.S. side, help other members of their families to jump the wall, in Tijuana, Mexico, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018. Thousands of migrants who traveled via caravan are seeking asylum in the United States, but face a decision between waiting months or crossing illegally, because the U.S. government only processes a limited number of cases a day at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Diego. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Honduran migrant Joel Mendez, 22, feeds his eight-month-old son Daniel as his partner Yesenia Martinez, 24, crawls through a hole under the U.S. border wall, in Tijuana, Mexico, Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. Moments later Martinez surrendered to waiting border guards while Mendez stayed behind in Tijuana to work, saying he feared he'd be deported if he crossed. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Yesenia Martinez, 24, carries her eight-month-old son Daniel as she looks for a place to cross the U.S. border wall to surrender to border patrol and request asylum, in Tijuana, Mexico, Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. Martinez surrendered to waiting border guards while her partner Joel Mendez stayed behind in Tijuana to work, saying he feared he'd be deported if he crossed. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
A woman climbs the U.S. border wall, planning to surrender to U.S. Border Patrol agents and apply for asylum, as she crosses from Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, Monday, Dec. 3, 2018. Often within minutes, border guards quickly arrive to escort migrants to detention centers and begin "credible fear" interviews. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
A woman holding a baby peers through the U.S. border fence as she tries to reach a point where scores of migrants have been crossing in recent days, now blocked by private security, in Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. Legal groups argue that federal law states that immigrants can apply for asylum no matter how they enter U.S. territory. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Honduran migrant Leivi Ortega, 22, wearing a rosary, looks at her phone while she, her partner and their young daughter, wait in hopes of finding an opportunity to cross the U.S. border from Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. In early December, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that the San Diego sector experienced a "slight uptick" in families entering the U.S. illegally with the goal of seeking asylum. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Yesenia Martinez, 24, reaches back from the San Diego, California side of the U.S. border wall to get her baby's bottle, after crossing underneath from Tijuana, Mexico, Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. Martinez is among a wave of Central Americans getting past the imposing barrier between Mexico and California and expediting their asylum claims by readily handing themselves over to U.S. agents. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
A Honduran migrant helps a young girl cross to the American side of the border wall, in Tijuana, Mexico, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018. In November, President Donald Trump issued a proclamation suspending asylum rights for people who try to cross into the U.S. illegally from Mexico, although a divided U.S. appeals court has refused to immediately allow the Trump administration to enforce the ban. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Salvadoran migrant Cesar Jobet, right, and Daniel Jeremias Cruz hide from U.S. border agents after they dug a hole in the sand under the border wall and crossed over to the U.S. side, in Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. When the two youths were detected by agents they ran back to the Mexican side. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A Honduran migrant walks with his son in his arms after jumping the U.S. border wall with plans to turn himself over to U.S. border patrol agents in order to apply for asylum, seen from Tijuana, Mexico, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. In twos or threes, or sometimes by the dozen, migrants arrive at the U.S. border wall and manage to cross over. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A Honduran migrant walks with his son in his arms after jumping the wall to the U.S that separates Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, in Tijuana, Mexico, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. Aid workers and humanitarian organizations expressed concerns Thursday about the unsanitary conditions at the sports complex in Tijuana where more than 6,000 Central American migrants are packed into a space adequate for half that many people and where lice infestations and respiratory infections are rampant. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A Honduran migrant walks with his son in his arms after jumping the wall to the U.S that separates Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, in Tijuana, Mexico, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. Aid workers and humanitarian organizations expressed concerns Thursday about the unsanitary conditions at the sports complex in Tijuana where more than 6,000 Central American migrants are packed into a space adequate for half that many people and where lice infestations and respiratory infections are rampant. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A Honduran migrant walks after jumping the wall to the U.S that separates Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, in Tijuana, Mexico, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. Aid workers and humanitarian organizations expressed concerns Thursday about the unsanitary conditions at the sports complex in Tijuana where more than 6,000 Central American migrants are packed into a space adequate for half that many people and where lice infestations and respiratory infections are rampant. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In a photo taken from the Tijuana, Mexico, side of the border wall, a guard on the U.S. side, at left, watches Honduran migrants jump the wall into the United States, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018. Thousands of migrants who traveled via caravan are seeking asylum in the U.S., but face a decision between waiting months or crossing illegally, because the U.S. government only processes a limited number of cases a day at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Diego. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In a photo taken from the Tijuana, Mexico, side of the border, two immigrants on U.S. soil try to jump the second wall before border police arrived and arrested them, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018. Thousands of migrants who traveled via caravan are seeking asylum in the U.S., but face a decision between waiting months or crossing illegally, because the U.S. government only processes a limited number of cases a day at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Diego. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In a photo taken from the Tijuana, Mexico, side of the border wall, a U.S. Border Patrol agent is seen as Honduran migrants who jumped the wall surrender on the U.S. side, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018. Thousands of migrants who traveled via caravan are seeking asylum in the U.S., but face a decision between waiting months or crossing illegally, because the U.S. government only processes a limited number of cases a day at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Diego. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
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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.

Immigrant advocacy groups say most released immigrants show up for their court hearings. Some are suing to halt the MPP policy, and a federal appeals court - the 9th U.S. Circuit - is due to rule on the case soon.

'NOTHING FOR THEM HERE'

According to the Reuters analysis, thousands of children are awaiting court hearings in border towns where the risk of kidnappings, rapes and assaults is high.

About 5,400 children in the MPP program had their cases assigned to San Diego immigration court, north of Tijuana. Most of the others were assigned to Texas courts: 5,600 to San Antonio and El Paso and 2,000 to Brownsville.

Jimenez, the Salvadoran mother, said that when she heard her family was being sent from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez, known for its high murder rate, "it was like they threw a bucket of cold water on me. ..Mexico isn't a place I trust to go out alone with my three children."

Brownsville is just north of Matamoros, in Mexico's Tamaulipas state, a violent battleground for drug cartels.

Florida resident Helen Perry, a nurse in the U.S. Army Reserve who joined a volunteer aid group headed to Matamoros on Labor Day weekend, told Reuters she saw families camped out in donated tents - each with between 5 to 10 people sleeping inside - a few dozen feet from the border.

One family, with four small children, was curled up under a tree, she said. People lacked access to fresh water and proper restrooms and were bathing in the Rio Grande river, she said.

One baby Perry examined had a chronic eye infection and was beginning to develop scarring, threatening his vision. Another had a fungal rash under his arm so severe it limited his movement.

Perry said she saw breastfeeding mothers so dehydrated that they could not nurse their babies and parents chewing up donated pizza into mush to feed their infants. Some children were showing early signs of malnutrition, she said.

"There is really nothing for them there," Perry said. (Reporting by Kristina Cooke in Tijuana, Mica Rosenberg in New York and Reade Levinson in London; Additional reporting by Delphine Schrank in Matamoros, Mexico)

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