- Edgard Garrido/Garrido
- The Trump administration faced accusations over the weekend that it “lost” nearly 1,500 migrant children whom it forcibly separated from their parents.
- Those claims aren’t quite true – the children are unaccompanied minors who arrived at the border alone and were reunited with their parents or family members in the US.
- The government said the children’s families didn’t respond to phone calls checking up on their well-being, leaving their whereabouts uncertain.
- The Trump administration and immigration advocates say the families may have purposely avoided those phone calls out of fear they could face deportation.
The Trump administration found itself facing a torrent of accusations over the weekend that the government had “lost” 1,475 minors, after month-old news resurfaced on Twitter and spawned a tangle of misinformation that has proved difficult to correct.
The controversy quickly became a flashpoint for several of President Donald Trump’s critics, who conflated two separate issues: the Trump administration’s new policy to separate some immigrant children from their parents at the border, and the federal government’s recent acknowledgment that it could not confirm the whereabouts of 1,475 migrant children.
But the two issues are not one and the same, and immigration advocates and the Trump administration alike have sought to correct the record on one key point: 1,475 children did not go missing after being separated from their parents at the border.
Rather, the 1,475 children are classified by the government as unaccompanied alien children; they arrived at the US border alone.
One month after the government placed those children with “sponsors” in the US – often their parents or close relatives – federal officials could not reach the sponsors by phone.
Here’s what Steven Wagner, the acting assistant secretary for children and families at the Department of Health and Human Services, said about the issue at a Senate hearing on April 26 (emphasis added):
“From October to December 2017, [the Office of Refugee Resettlement] attempted to reach 7,635 UAC and their sponsors. Of this number, ORR reached and received agreement to participate in the safety and well-being call from approximately 86 percent of sponsors. From these calls, ORR learned that 6,075 UAC remained with their sponsors. Twenty-eight UAC had run away, five had been removed from the United States, and 52 had relocated to live with a non-sponsor. ORR was unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475 UAC.”
These numbers were reported last month by several news outlets, including The New York Times. They received relatively little attention at the time – until they resurfaced last Friday with a vengeance.
A parade of Democrats, journalists, and celebrities shared the month-old news on Twitter. Some excoriated the Trump administration for “losing” the children and falsely claimed they were forcibly separated from their parents.
When I think about the 1500 lost children and those who are systematically separated from their mothers at the border, I come back to the same thought: If we can’t stop this in America we won’t stop it anywhere. #WhereAreTheChildren
— Joaquin Castro (@JoaquinCastrotx) May 27, 2018
Undocumented children are children. Like any other. But because they have been so dehumanized the Trump administration has separated them from their parents, lost them and made them vulnerable to human traffickers. #WhereAreTheChildren? Dont ask Trump. He doesn't care.
— Wajahat Ali (@WajahatAli) May 26, 2018
Children of immigrants are being held in cages like animals at @ICEgov detention centers. Tell ICE and your elected officials that this is horrifyingly unacceptable. In addition to tearing children from their mothers arms- ICE has LOST 1500 kids. #WhereAreTheChildren pic.twitter.com/dMWRIgpRuQ
— Mia Farrow (@MiaFarrow) May 27, 2018
Those children aren’t ‘lost.’ They may have gone into hiding.
- Reuters/Edgard Garrido
But as Trump administration officials and some immigration lawyers have pointed out, there may be a very good reason that the federal government had difficulty contacting the children or their sponsors: They may not want to be found.
“We do place kids with families that are here themselves illegally,” Wagner told reporters in a conference call on Tuesday. “So you can imagine that many of those would not choose to speak to a federal official calling on the phone.”
He added that the phone calls HHS makes to the families are voluntary – there is no law requiring HHS to call – and that the children are not in government custody while those phone calls are made.
“There’s no reason to believe that anything has happened to the kids. If you call a friend and they don’t answer the phone, you don’t assume that they’ve been kidnapped,” Wagner said. “So that characterization that the kids are missing is incorrect.”
Immigration experts and attorneys have backed up this claim. Some explained on social media over the weekend that not only is it fine that the government cannot track down the children and their families – it may actually be better for them.
“If I’m [the ORR] and I called, and they don’t pick up, it doesn’t mean they’re missing – they’re probably very fine,” Prerna Lal, an immigration attorney based in California, told Business Insider on Tuesday.
Lal said clients often don’t report their whereabouts to the government and have several good reasons not to pick up a phone call from a federal official. Some may have moved or switched phone numbers, while others simply don’t want to be found.
Lal added that the public uproar could have the opposite effect that Trump’s critics intended by resulting in the prolonged detention of migrant children. Though the government is legally required to release unaccompanied minors to sponsors or foster care after 72 hours of detention, the Trump administration could argue that they should be kept longer.
“All this hysteria is just going make it easier for the Trump administration to say: ‘Maybe we shouldn’t be releasing these children this quickly. Maybe we should be keeping them in custody.’ That will just traumatize children more and make them more vulnerable to abuse,” Lal said. “We do not want to imprison children and traumatize them for longer than necessary.”
Lal added that much of the outrage over the “missing” children is misplaced – instead, people should be focusing on the children who arrive at the border with their parents and are forcibly separated under a new Trump administration policy.
“It’s great to see all this energy around the missing children,” Lal said. “But I would really like the focus on ending family separation at the border.”
The Trump administration’s family-separation policy
- Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Though the 1,475 children in question were not separated from their parents by the government, the Trump administration has been under fire for implementing a new policy of separating families for a different category of immigrants: people who illegally cross the border with their children.
Earlier this month, the Justice Department unveiled a new “zero tolerance” policy, vowing to criminally prosecute every person caught crossing the border illegally, rather than placing them into civil deportation proceedings as has been customary in the past.
“If you cross the southwest border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a speech to law-enforcement officials in Scottsdale, Arizona. “If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”
He continued: “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
The policy made further waves when Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, told NPR that the policy would serve as a “tough deterrent” for migrants seeking to illegally cross the border and dismissed concerns about the effect of separating children from their parents.
When asked by NPR about those who say the policy is “cruel and heartless,” Kelly brushed off the question.
“I wouldn’t put it quite that way,” Kelly said, according to an interview transcript. “The children will be taken care of – put into foster care or whatever. But the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.”