JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – Noemi Alvarez was 12 when her grandparents in an Ecuadorian village put her on a bus. She was headed 6,500 miles north to her parents in New York City but never made it. Deeply traumatized by violence inflicted on her along the journey, she hung herself in the shower stall of a Juarez migrant shelter.

The tragedy dating back to March 2014 has served as a cautionary tale of the dangers unaccompanied minors from Latin America face on their trek north. In the case of Juarez, it’s become a rallying cry to do a better job of protecting migrant children.

On Tuesday, the state of Chihuahua’s Family Development agency (DIF) and officials from the United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF) inaugurated the Noemi Alvarez Quillay Social Assistance Center for migrant children and teenagers.

Located in a Downtown building formerly occupied by a psychiatric hospital, the shelter for unaccompanied minors will have better security, psychologists and social workers dedicated to reuniting the children with their families, sponsors said.

The inside of the new unaccompanied minors center in Juarez, Mexico. (photo by Roberto Delgado/Special to Border Report)

“Children and adolescents can stay for a short period of time, receive basic care and have the (Mexican) child protection agency develop a plan to safeguard their rights and take whatever steps necessary for family reunification,” said Christian Skoog, UNICEF’s representative in Mexico.

He said the UN agency gave input on the care model that will be applied at the shelter and that the Juarez facility can serve as a model for any others that spring up in Mexico.

The shelter, which is where unaccompanied minors turned over to Mexico by U.S. immigration authorities are going now, has been operating for several weeks now, Chihuahua Gov. Javier Corral said. It also houses minors that, like Alvarez, were stopped in Mexico before attempting to cross the border.

“We hadn’t inaugurated it because of the pandemic,” Corral said. “We have already housed and fed almost 70 children. Today, we have 40 boys and girls here. They’re in the dormitories to protect their privacy. They’re mostly from Mexico – states like Oaxaca, Chiapas and Veracruz — but we also have kids from Guatemala and others in Central America, and even from Ecuador.”

Chihuahua Gov. Javier Corral talks to a minor housed at the Noemi Alvarez Quillay Social Assistance Center for migrant children and adolescents in Juarez, (photo State of Chihuahua)
Graphic courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and Mexico’s mid-2020 crackdown on migrant caravans from Central America, the number of unaccompanied minor children making their way to the border had skyrocketed compared to previous years. In the two-year span from 2018-2019, the U.S. Border Patrol detained 126,056 unaccompanied minors at the Southwest border.

Mexico in 2019 detained another 50,621 at its southern border and returned most of them the same year primarily to Honduras and Guatemala, according to the National Immigration Institute (INM).

Chihuahua spent half a million dollars converting the old psychiatric hospital into a suitable children’s shelter and UNICEF donated $33,000 to fund the salaries of case workers through September. The Church of Latter Day Saints donated computer equipment and Coppell, a Mexican department store chain, donated another $20,000 in furniture and appliances, Corral said.

“Noemi could not complete the journey that would reunite her with her family in the United States,” said DIF president Cinthia Aideé Chavira Gamboa. But, “we will continue fighting, with all the tools at our disposal, for the rights (of the children) and family reunification.”

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