The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Treatment and rhetoric about undocumented children put the Trump administration in a new category on hard-line immigration policy

President Trump called out undocumented minors in MS-13 at a May 23 immigration roundtable, saying, “They look so innocent; they’re not innocent.” (Video: The Washington Post)

The Trump administration is receiving criticism after a top official disclosed during testimony before a Senate subcommittee that the Department of Health and Human Services lost track of nearly 1,500 migrant children placed with sponsors in the United States.

According Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary at HHS, officials at the agency’s Office of Refugee Resettlement attempted to reach 7,635 children and their sponsors last year. The conversations revealed that only 6,075 were still living with their sponsors. Twenty-eight had run away, five had been removed from the country and 52 had moved in with a non-sponsor.

The rest — 1,475 children — were missing, their locations unknown.

Concerns that these youth could become victims of human traffickers or subject to other abusers are significant, University of California at Los Angeles professors Jaana Juvonen and Jennifer Silvers previously wrote for The Post:

Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have argued that this policy change is inhumane, and it is. But evidence from developmental neuroscience suggests it is more than inhumane.
It’s also, by definition, torture.
Children arriving at the U.S. border in search of asylum are frequently a particularly vulnerable population. In many cases fleeing violence and persecution, they also encounter hunger, illness and threats of physical harm along their hazardous journey to the border. This combination of experiences puts migrant children at high risk for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

That's the latest bit of insight into how officials view and treat undocumented children attempting to enter the United States.

In an NPR interview earlier this month, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly was asked if using family separation as a “tough deterrent” to keep families from attempting to illegally immigrate into the United States was “cruel and heartless.”

“I wouldn't put it quite that way. The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever,” he said. “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.”

And Trump and his top administration officials repeatedly stated Wednesday that unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the southern border could potentially expose the nation to eventual gang crime. Although immigrant advocates argue that the children are fleeing violence in their home countries and seeking safe harbor in the United States, Trump said the migrants have “exploited” America's immigration laws.

“We have the worst immigration laws of any country, anywhere in the world,” he said at the roundtable held at the Morrelly Homeland Security Center in Bethpage, N.Y. “They exploited the loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors.”

“They look so innocent. They’re not innocent,” Trump added.

The president's hard-line immigration policy won him the support of his base — and others wanting to see the U.S. government take a tougher approach to illegal immigration. Issues pertaining to children have traditionally presented a line, even for hardcore immigration opponents. This week, the Trump administration has showed its willingness to cross that line.