The Border Patrol truck brakes as three figures walk up the dirt road, clutching water bottles. A 15-year-old girl and her 11-year-old cousin from Honduras have just crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico with another 15-year-old boy from El Salvador. They are now known as unaccompanied minors—children under 18 who cross the border illegally without a parent or guardian.

We meet on the side of the road, and Border Patrol agents shepherd the children to a sliver of shade to wait for a van to pick them up. Border Patrol is obliged to transfer unaccompanied minors to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within a maximum of 72 hours.

“But they’re never with us that long,” said Marlene Castro, a Border Patrol supervisory agent in the Rio Grande Valley. “Because they’re minors, they’re top priority, and everything is taken care of real quick.”

If the children were from Mexico, Border Patrol would have the authority to turn them back, straight back to their home country. However, the agency cannot turn Central American minors back to Mexico—even if they admit to being a member of a violent gang. Border Patrol has to allow them into the United States and process them through the court system (which has its own problems—most notably, a backlog of more than 542,000 cases).

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