Federal officials lost track of nearly 1,500 migrant children that showed up at the Southwest border alone and were placed in the care of sponsors. Yes, you read that right: No one knows what happened with 1,475 immigrant kids.
The news flew under the radar when Steven Wagner, the acting assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services ’s Administration for Children and Families, testified before Congress in late April. But now that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has instructed agents to separate parents and children entering the US illegally, instead of keeping them together in detention, questions have been raised over whether the federal government can protect these kids.
Wagner testified that between October and December of 2017, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) tried to reach sponsors to find out about the 7,635 children placed under their care. The migrant kids came mostly from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Government data shows that they flew their countries because of issues such as gang violence and domestic abuse, and arrived in the United States unaccompanied.
Wagner said ORR officials found that 6,075 children remained with their sponsors. Over 80 were not for other circumstances: Five children were deported, 28 ran away, and 52 had been relocated with a non-sponsor. But officials were unable to determine what happened with the remaining 1,475 children — about 19% — raising fears that the kids are victims of human traffickers or labourers who posed as their relatives in order to become sponsors.
Those fears are not unfounded: A recent Frontline documentary says federal agencies released at least eight Guatemalan teens into the custody of human traffickers in 2014.
While Sessions' guidance is fairly recent, separating migrant parents and children has been happening already. Since October 2017, more than 700 children were taken away from their undocumented guardians, including more than 100 children under the age of four.
Sessions' goal is to prosecute everyone who enters the US without authorisation, and separating children from parents is in theory similar to what would happen if a US citizen is convicted and jailed.
"If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It's that simple," Sessions said earlier this month.
But immigrants are entitled to a hearing in immigration court to determine their fate, and that legal process can take a very long time. (The backlog of pending immigration court cases is currently over 650,000.) Separating parents and children at the border, and keeping them at separate detention centres, means that family reunification could potentially take years. And what happens if the children are released into the custody of someone pretending to be a family member?
The policy is part of Sessions' plans to reshape the US immigration system. He tried to President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protected Dreamers, the undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children; imposed case quotas on immigration judges, which could jeopardise the courts' impartiality and lead to more deportations; and is currently looking into whether domestic violence victims are eligible for asylum.
Even though the ORR's found out about the missing children late last year, there's still no update on their fate. Federal officials say they're not legally responsible for the kids once they are released from the refugee office.