TIJUANA, Mexico — It’s 10 a.m., but it’s still pretty early for a group of teenage boys who are just waking up inside a migrant shelter for unaccompanied children along a busy highway in Tijuana.

At Casa YMCA de Menores Migrantes, the three Mexican teenage boys — aged 15, 16 and 17 — check their phones as they slowly sit up and stretch their feet out over the edge of their bunk beds.

“About 80% of the kids we receive here are Mexicans, girls and boys and adolescents, between the ages of 12 and 17 who are deported from the United States and they arrive every morning,” said Valeria Ruiz, the new director of Casa YMCA, the only shelter in Tijuana for under-aged migrants.

Like thousands of other children in recent years, they’ve traveled to the border from south Mexico without their parents, and they were caught trying to cross into the United States.

Typically, U.S. immigration authorities process unaccompanied Mexican minors and release them to Mexican authorities. Then, the kids wait in one of the most dangerous cities in the world to be reunited with their families.

It’s a growing trend that has human rights advocates and child welfare workers in Tijuana alarmed.

In the San Diego Sector, across the border from Tijuana, there has been a 40% increase in the number of unaccompanied Mexican children trying to cross the border alone and undetected, during the first quarter of this fiscal year compared to the previous quarter, according to the U.S. Border Patrol.

Unlike unaccompanied minors in the Migrant Protection Protocols program, U.S. border authorities are able to deport these kids back to Mexico because they are not making an asylum claim, according to Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Jeffery Stephenson.

Mexican migrant children who do make an asylum claim often end up detained for many months in U.S. facilities.

Stephenson said border agents routinely work with the Mexican Consulate, Mexican immigration authorities, and the DIF, the Sistema de Desarrollo Integral de la Familia, Mexico’s child welfare agency, to turn unaccompanied children back over to Mexican authorities, who are responsible for reuniting them with their families.

The process has been the same for years, he said.

Some boys at Casa YMCA confirmed last week they were not trying to flee violence or political persecution in their home states of Oaxaca and Guerrero. Most said they were trying to find a job in the United States to support their families back home.

“I tried to cross, but they got me,” said Isaias, referring to Border Patrol. He asked the San Diego Union-Tribune not to use his last name.

At 17, he’s the oldest of the group, and he said he’ll never try to make the journey north again.

“I just came to work. But it was very cold and very hard and actually we saw some very ugly things while trying to cross the border, and for nothing,” he said, shyly. He declined to elaborate.

Ruiz said helping teenagers who have been through traumatic events during their journey north or back home is some of the most challenging work she faces.

“They are teenagers fleeing violence, fleeing poverty, fleeing from a lack of opportunities in their home communities. So, when they arrive at the YMCA, they have often gone through a very long and complicated process, and they’ve often been through human rights violations,” she said.

“It usually is a bit complicated to talk to them at the beginning. They are not afraid; they are uncertain. And they want to be with their families,” said Ruiz. “We have to work with them and support them so they feel this house is a safe space.”

Most of the boys in Casa YMCA have only been in Tijuana for a few days, and soon, they will be reunited with their families in south Mexico — Oaxaca and Guerrero, she said.

But many other adolescents in the border region take great care to avoid detection by U.S. or Mexican authorities, so they won’t be sent back home.

“Unlike adult [migrants], teenagers travel in a very invisible way through the country and the city,” said Ruiz.

“They stay on unusual [migratory] routes and they stay at shelters that are not official. Sometimes, they try to pass themselves off as adults in the different shelters,” she said.

Ruiz said because the minors try to hide throughout the city, there’s really no way to know exactly how many migrant children are roaming the streets of Tijuana alone.

“Unfortunately, the only definite number we have is the number of deported minors, because that is a record kept by both countries,” she said. “We will never know how many there really are in the city.”

Both the United States and Mexico say the numbers of minors trying to cross into the United States and getting deported back into Mexico is steadily increasing, although it has not reached the high numbers seen in 2005, when nearly 5,000 Mexican minors were deported back.

According to Mexico Consul General Carlos González Gutiérrez, a total of 1,573 unaccompanied Mexican minors were returned to Mexico or “repatriated to the national territory” in 2019, through Baja California ports of entry. He said the figure represents a 19% increase compared to 2018 and an 84% increase compared with 2017.

Human rights advocates in Tijuana said more kids are trying to cross the border undetected because of a policy change in Mexico that prevents them from seeking asylum.

In the past, unaccompanied minors were allowed to ask for asylum at U.S. ports of entry, like any other adult, but advocates say this is no longer the case.

“As part of the agreement that Mexico made with the United States, one of the main changes is that minors cannot apply for asylum as an adult would directly at the border,” said Ruiz. “In the case of adolescents, children who travel alone and show up at the border alone, they are not allowed to make an asylum request,” she said.

She said Mexican authorities explain the policy change as an effort aimed at protecting minors and keeping them from being victims of human trafficking.