Last Friday, which was also International Missing Children's Day, Arizona Republic reporter EJ Montini wrote a column circulated by USA Today that reminded readers that, in the wake of the Trump Administration's new policy to separate parents and children at the border, the Department of Health and Human Services have lost track of nearly 1,500 missing children (1,475 to be precise).
This led to a social media explosion over the weekend, with the hashtags #WhereAreTheChildren and #MissingChildren going viral. Both of these issues - the 1,500 missing children and the border separation policy - are causes for concern, but it's crucial that we not conflate the two lest we should misunderstand what's really at stake here and find that our efforts to demand accountability from this administration have backfired.
Last year, more than 7,000 unaccompanied minors (UACs) crossed the border into the United States from Latin American countries. From there, they were placed under the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Administration for Children and Families. There, the kids waited while relatives/guardians are contacted to take them into their custody. In April, HHS official Steve Wagner testified before Congress that during a survey conducted by his department to keep track of the 7,000+, they found that 6,075 still lived with their sponsors, 28 had run away, 5 had been deported, and 52 now lived with another guardian. But 1,500 were unaccounted for.
This led to people assuming the worst of the missing children, like Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who raised concerns that they could have been sold into trafficking, a claim he repeated on an episode of PBS Frontline. However, just because the HHS doesn't have tabs on the 1,500 doesn't mean they are "missing." It is too great a stretch to assume that they have been sold into trafficking, or are stuck in internment camps like the Japanese in World War Two. These children that Wagner referred to are not the same children who have been unfairly separated from their parents at the border. For one, the survey only accounts for children who arrived unaccompanied. For another, once the ORR has found guardians for the children, they stop keeping tabs on them. As lawyer Josie Duffy Rice argued on Twitter yesterday, "Do you want the jail keeping track of where every former inmate is?"
And not to be ignored as well, the survey was conducted solely by phone. What if the reason they didn't get answers from everyone is that people missed the call? Or, more importantly, what if the sponsors of these undocumented children didn't want to answer because they too are undocumented and don't want to reveal that status to a government agency? These explanations prevent a simple answer from emerging.
The new immigration policy that Jeff Sessions and the Trump Administration have put out to separate parents from children at the border is heartbreaking and should provoke outrage. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly's recent remarks deriding these migrants as "overwhelmingly rural" and having only "fourth, fifth, sixth-grade education" rank among the most hostile displays of racism in this administration. But as we remember not to conflate the 1,500 with the separated children, we must also remember not to conflate ORR with ICE, Immigrations Customs Enforcement. When UACs cross the border, ICE turns them over to the ORR because they are more vulnerable. Once in their custody, the ORR does not share information with ICE on the UACs because these children are less likely to get a sponsor under threat of deportation. If ORR and ICE did work together to determine the fates of UACs, as Rice reminds us, this means that they could run background checks on potential sponsors, and if those sponsors were also undocumented, they could be deported along with the children who need their help.
Yes, we should protest against the injustices done by ICE, and demand that children not be separated from their families. But when we ask for the ORR and ICE to keep better track of them, we should be careful what we ask for - because if they did become better at it, things could get real ugly, real fast.