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The U.S. lost track of 1,475 immigrant children last year. Here’s why people are outraged now.

Outrage about treatment of children taken into U.S. custody at the Southwest border has reached a fever pitch, exploding in a barrage of tweets and calls to act (Video: Reuters)

Reports of federal authorities losing track of nearly 1,500 immigrant children in their custody. Scathing criticism over children being taken from their migrant parents at the border. Proposed rallies.

In the recent days, outrage about treatment of children taken into U.S. custody at the Southwest border has reached a fever pitch, exploding in a barrage of tweets and calls to action with the hashtags #WhereAreTheChildren and #MissingChildren.

How accurate are certain claims circulating online? Are these children really missing? What do those children have to do with the Trump administration’s new immigration enforcement policies? How many families are being separated? And why is there so much outrage about it now? We take a look at how the story has snowballed.

Did the United States really lose track of 1,475 immigrant kids?

In short, yes. During a Senate committee hearing late last month, Steven Wagner, an official with the Department of Health and Human Services, testified that the federal agency had lost track of 1,475 children who had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border on their own (that is, unaccompanied by adults) and subsequently were placed with adult sponsors in the United States. As the Associated Press reported, the number was based on a survey of more than 7,000 children:

From October to December 2017, HHS called 7,635 children the agency had placed with sponsors, and found 6,075 of the children were still living with their sponsors, 28 had run away, five had been deported and 52 were living with someone else. The rest were missing, said Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary at HHS.

Health and Human Services officials have argued it is not the department’s legal responsibility to find those children after they are released from the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which falls under HHS‘s Administration for Children and Families. And some have pointed out that adult sponsors are sometimes relatives who already were living in the United States and who intentionally may not be responding to contact attempts by HHS.

However, neither of those arguments has done much to quell outrage surrounding the testimony by Wagner, a principal deputy at HHS who oversees the Administration for Children and Families.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), chairman of the Senate subcommittee, has repeatedly argued that it was a matter of humanity, not simply legal responsibility, citing a case in which federal officials had turned over eight immigrant children to human traffickers.

“These kids, regardless of their immigration status, deserve to be treated properly, not abused or trafficked,” Portman said in the subcommittee. “This is all about accountability.”

Portman reiterated his stance in an April 24 “Frontline” special called “Trafficked in America,” which documented the plight of the eight children who were forced to work on an egg farm in Ohio.

Teens are trafficked from Guatemala, sent to Ohio egg farm under slave-like conditions, government says. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post and Investigative Reporting Program)

“We’ve got these kids. They’re here. They’re living on our soil,” he told the PBS program. “And for us to just, you know, assume someone else is going to take care of them and throw them to the wolves, which is what HHS was doing, is flat-out wrong. I don’t care what you think about immigration policy, it’s wrong.”

According to HHS, approximately 85 percent of sponsors who ultimately acquire custody of unaccompanied minors are parents or close family members.

Were these 1,475 children separated from their parents at the border?

No. The children unaccounted for in last year’s HHS survey all arrived at the Southwest border alone. The government refers to these children as “unaccompanied alien children,” or UACs.

Are children being taken from their parents after they cross the border into the United States?

Yes. On May 7, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Justice Department would begin prosecuting every person who crossed the Southwest border illegally — or at least attempt to prosecute “100 percent” — even if some of them could or should be treated as asylum seekers, as the American Civil Liberties Union has argued.

Although Sessions said he understood that some people were fleeing violence or other dangerous situations, he has also stated that the United States “cannot take everyone on this planet who is in a difficult situation.”

“If you cross the border unlawfully … then we will prosecute you,” he said in a pair of speeches in Scottsdale, Ariz., and San Diego. “If you smuggle an illegal alien across the border, then we’ll prosecute you. … If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on May 7, that the Justice Dept. will begin prosecuting every person who illegally crosses the Southwest border. (Video: The Washington Post)

The consequence of this new “100 percent” policy is that children will be separated from their parents as the adults are charged with a crime, even if the adults are seeking asylum and present themselves at official ports of entry.

Under federal rules, Immigration and Customs Enforcement transfers unaccompanied minors, and now children of detained adults, to Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement within 48 hours of their crossing the border, according to the AP.

Are child-parent separations being used as a tool to deter border crossings?

That would appear to be the case. As The Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz and Maria Sacchetti reported, internal discussions about separating families at the border suggested that it was to dissuade people from attempting to cross the border:

Senior immigration and border officials called for the increased prosecutions [in April] in a confidential memo to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. They said filing criminal charges against migrants, including parents traveling with children, would be the “most effective” way to tamp down on illegal border crossings.
The “zero-tolerance” measure announced Monday could split up thousands of families because children are not allowed in criminal jails. Until now, most families apprehended crossing the border illegally have been released to await civil deportation hearings.

In a May 11 interview with NPR’s John Burnett, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly referred to family separation as something that would be a “tough deterrent” to migrant parents who may be thinking of bringing their children to the border.

“Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into United States are not bad people,” Kelly told Burnett. “But they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States into our modern society. They’re overwhelmingly rural people in the countries they come from — fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. … They’re coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws. But a big name of the game is deterrence.”

What are some of the issues that these children face during separation?

For months, stories have abounded of families separated by immigration authorities at the border: Three children were separated from their mother as they fled a gang in El Salvador; a 7-year-old was taken from her Congolese mother who was seeking asylum; and so on, in reportedly hundreds of cases. In almost every case, the families have described heart-wrenching goodbyes and agonizing uncertainty about whether they would be reunited.

According to the Florence Project, an Arizona nonprofit organization that provides legal and social services to detained immigrants, there have been more than 200 cases of parents being separated from their children since the beginning of the year in the state alone.

“The type of devastation that we’re talking about … where a separated mother doesn’t know where her child is for four days, that’s entirely common right now in this administration,” Laura St. John, the group’s legal director, told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. “Children and parents who are separated sometimes don’t have any way to communicate with each other for days, for weeks — I’ve seen months where a parent had no idea where their child was after the U.S. government took their child away.”

St. John noted her group also was seeing increasingly younger children being taken into custody by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, as opposed to the migrant teenagers who had previously crossed the border themselves.

“Just last week we saw a 53-week-old infant in court without a parent,” St. John told Hayes. “What we’re seeing now is that, because the government is separating the children from the parents, the government is actually rendering these children as unaccompanied minors and bringing them to the shelters.”

On the same program, Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s immigrants’ rights project, told Hayes that the number of separations his group has seen was “unprecedented.”

“This is the worst thing I’ve seen in 25-plus years of doing this civil rights work,” Gelernt said. “I am talking to these mothers and they are describing their kids screaming, ‘Mommy, Mommy, don’t let them take me away!’ … The medical evidence is overwhelming that we may be doing permanent trauma to these kids, and yet the government is finding every way they can to try and justify it.”

The Office of Refugee Resettlement reported that children spent an average of 34 days in their custody during the 2015 fiscal year.

What has the government’s response been?

In his May 11 NPR interview, the White House chief of staff danced around a question about whether it was “cruel and heartless” for U.S. border officials to take an immigrant child away from his or her mother.

“I wouldn’t put it quite that way,” Kelly told Burnett. “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.”

Many members of Congress have expressed concern about family separations. In February, 71 Democratic lawmakers signed a letter to Nielsen stating that they were “deeply disturbed” by the increasing practice, which “suggests a lack of understanding about the violence many families are fleeing in their home countries.”

On May 16, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) questioned Nielsen about the “immoral” policy and asked whether she had been directed to separate families to deter future border crossing attempts. Nielsen denied that the new policy was an act of deterrence.

“What purpose have you been given for separating parents from their children?” Harris asked.

“So my decision has been that anyone who breaks the law will be prosecuted,” Nielsen said. “If you’re a parent or you’re a single person or you happen to have a family, if you cross between the ports of entry, we will refer you for prosecution. You’ve broken U.S. law.”

Nielsen also tried to recast questions that characterized children being removed from their parents’ custody as family separations. When Harris demanded to know whether or how Border Patrol agents were trained to take children from their parents, Nielsen interrupted.

“No, what we’ll be doing is prosecuting parents who have broken the law, just as we do every day in the United States of America,” she said.

“I can appreciate that,” Harris continued, “but if that parent has a 4-year-old child, what do you plan on doing with that child?”

“The child, under law, goes to HHS for care and custody,” Nielsen said.

“They will be separated from their parents,” Harris said, slowly. “My question then is, when you are separating children from their parents, do you have a protocol in place about how that should be done and are you training the people who will actually remove a child from their parent on how to do that in the least traumatic way? I would hope you do train on how to do that.”

Nielsen said she would provide that information to Harris later.

Although the hearing took place two weeks ago, Harris tweeted footage from it on Saturday afternoon, calling Nielsen’s responses “beyond insufficient.”

How has HHS responded?

On Monday night, HHS Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan said in a statement that “the assertion that unaccompanied alien children (UAC) are ‘lost’ is completely false. This is a classic example of the adage ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’”

Hargan’s statement said that ORR “began voluntarily making calls in 2016 as a 30-day follow-up on the release of UAC to make sure that UAC and their sponsors did not require additional services. This additional step, which is not required and was not done previously, is now being used to confuse and spread misinformation.

“These children are not ‘lost’; their sponsors — who are usually parents or family members and in all cases have been vetted for criminality and ability to provide for them — simply did not respond or could not be reached when this voluntary call was made. While there are many possible reasons for this, in many cases sponsors cannot be reached because they themselves are illegal aliens and do not want to be reached by federal authorities.

“This is the core of this issue: In many cases, HHS has been put in the position of placing illegal aliens with the individuals who helped arrange for them to enter the country illegally. This makes the immediate crisis worse and creates a perverse incentive for further violation of federal immigration law.”

He added that “the tracking of UAC after release is just one of the recent headlines that focus on the symptoms of our broken immigration system while ignoring its fundamental flaws. President Trump’s administration has been calling on Congress to put an end to dangerous loopholes in U.S. immigration laws like the practice of ‘catch and release,’ in which federal authorities release illegal immigrants to await hearings for which few show up. In the worst cases, these loopholes are being exploited by human traffickers and violent gangs like MS-13. Until these laws are fixed, the American taxpayer is paying the bill for costly programs that aggravate the problem and put children in dangerous situations.”

Why are we hearing about these issues now?

As mentioned, reports of the 1,475 children HHS could not account for first emerged in April, and proposals to crack down on migrant families crossing the border were discussed as early as last year.

Nevertheless, the story snowballed this past week, with thousands expressing outrage online about both family separations or the HHS survey from last year. Why? As with other topics that mushroom inexplicably on social media, it’s unclear. The issues may have drawn renewed attention in part because of a widely shared column in USA Today by Arizona Republic columnist E.J. Montini.

Friday also happened to be International Missing Children’s Day, producing what some called an ill-timed tweet from the recruiting arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Although ICE is not the agency that is responsible for migrant children, it has since President Trump took office cracked down on deporting undocumented immigrants who previously would not have been a priority.

MSNBC’s Hayes highlighted the issue on his show Friday and called out egregious cases of family separation on social media, labeling the practice “a moral abomination, and a national shame.”

As mentioned before, the 1,475 children were not separated from their parents at the border. However, many who have expressed outrage online about family separations have been appending their tweets with the hashtags #WhereAreTheChildren or #MissingChildren, intentionally or unintentionally linking the two issues.

Some who should have been better informed also conflated the two, implying that federal officials had lost 1,500 immigrant children who had been taken from their parents, when this was not the case.

Other officials and celebrities seized on the hashtag to propose protests and spread the story further, sometimes with erroneous information. For example, some mistakenly accused ICE, a different agency, of “losing” 1,500 children. Many began recirculating an Arizona Republic slideshow with photos from 2014 of a federal detention center for child immigrants.

However, as Vox immigration reporter Dara Lind pointed out in a long thread about both matters, the fact that HHS has already admitted that it cannot account for nearly 1,500 migrant children previously in its custody does not inspire confidence that the agency could perform better with an expanded scope of responsibilities.

“Is this relevant to their newly expanded duties to care for kids separated from parents? You bet it is,” Lind wrote. “But that’s [because] it’s the agency failing at its TRADITIONAL function, and now being asked to perform a new one.”

The topic gained traction Saturday morning when Trump tried to blame Democrats for “the horrible law that separates children from parents once they cross the Border” — even though there is no such law, and even though it was a policy supported by his administration.

Trump also tried to use the issue to drum up support for his proposed border wall.

“He used DACA kids as a bargaining chip, and it didn’t work,” said Kevin Appleby, the senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank. “So now he’s using vulnerable Central American families for his nativist agenda. It’s shameless.”

Tuesday morning, apparently responding to a segment on “Fox and Friends,” the president returned to Twitter to criticize some of the lawmakers and others on the left whose the #WhereAreTheChildren tweets had used archival photos showing unaccompanied minors in federal custody.

Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

Read more:

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Two Americans were detained by a Border Patrol agent after he heard them speaking Spanish

What the legal process looks like for an immigrant child taken away from his parents