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What You Need To Know About The 'Missing' Migrant Children

Members of a caravan of Central Americans who spent weeks traveling across Mexico walk from Mexico to the U.S. side of the border to ask authorities for asylum on April 29, 2018 in Tijuana, Baja California Norte, Mexico. This weekend, news about how federal agencies "lost track" of some unaccompanied children who had been placed with sponsors sparked a debate over the treatment of children and families at the border.
Members of a caravan of Central Americans who spent weeks traveling across Mexico walk from Mexico to the U.S. side of the border to ask authorities for asylum on April 29, 2018 in Tijuana, Baja California Norte, Mexico. This weekend, news about how federal agencies "lost track" of some unaccompanied children who had been placed with sponsors sparked a debate over the treatment of children and families at the border.

This weekend, Twitter was abuzz with reactions to a story about federal agencies losing track of about 1,500 migrant children. The conversation evolved to be about the condition of children who cross the border, and was amplified by tweets from President Trump and the Twitter hashtags #Wherearethechildren and #Missingchildren.

But there have been some questions and misconceptions about the story. Here are a few points to clear things up.

1) Where does the 1,500 number come from?

Steven Wagner, a top official with the Department of Health and Human Services, told Congress in April that last year the agency lost track of 1,475 migrant children who had arrived unaccompanied at the southwestern border. The New York Times reports that most of the children are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and were fleeing drug cartels, gang violence and domestic abuse,, according to government data.

Here’s what “lost” means: When children come to the border unaccompanied, they are placed in a shelter or with a sponsor. Vox spoke with an immigration expert to discuss this process, Jennifer Podkul.

HHS has a policy that, when they reunify a child with a sponsor in the United States, they call the phone number that the sponsor submitted to the government 30 days afterward. This [meaning the ~1500 children] was their answer to the question of, how many of those children were they not able to get in touch with, with that one phone call.”

An important thing to clarify is that these 1,500 children were not separated from their parents at the border. They showed up alone and were placed with sponsors. That gets into the crux of the confusion: It seems that some on social media and other outlets are conflated these two issues regarding migration at the southern border. Which brings us to the next point …

2) Are children being separated from their parents at the border?

Yes. Hundreds of children have been separated from their parents at the border as a part of the new “zero tolerance policy” announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The policy sets criminal penalties for individuals trying to cross the border, among other punitive measures. Data reviewed by The New York Times in late April says that nearly 700 children, including more than 100 under the age of four, have been separated from people claiming to be their parents.

Members of the Trump administration, including the former head of Homeland Security and current Chief of Staff John Kelly and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have previously posited that separating children from their parents could be a method of deterring families with children to come to the border. But the Department of Homeland Security said last month that the practice is not a deterrence mechanism and is done to protect minor children’s “best interests” if the department cannot confirm a parental relationship or if they think the child is otherwise in danger.

NPR spoke with Jennifer Nagda, the policy director at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. Congress appointed the organization as the independent advocate for vulnerable children at the border. And Nagda said that her organization has “absolutely” noticed an uptick in children being separated from their parents. Nagda also said that she has seen no evidence that this new “zero tolerance” policy deters potential migrants from coming to the border.

3) What law is President Trump talking about?

Over the weekend, the President tweeted:

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 26, 2018

But there is no law that requires separation. The New York Times reports that the closest thing the government has to a law on this practice right now is the administration’s own “zero tolerance” policy, which Democrats did not initiate. Under previous policy, immigrant children were usually allowed to stay with their parents.

4) But what about that report regarding the treatment of immigrant children I heard about?

The ACLU released a report last week alleging that detained immigrant children “suffered pervasive abuse”. It was based on 30,000 pages of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. These documents date from 2009-2014.

In the report, the ACLU alleges that immigrant children have “reported physical and psychological abuse, unsanitary and inhumane living conditions…and denial of access to legal and medical services.”

Customs and Border Protection called the report “unfounded and baseless,” and said that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General had already completed an investigation without noting instances of misconduct. Read their full statement here

5) What was President Trump talking about in his tweet about “2014 pictures?”

You may have seen pictures of children being held in detention facilities. They circulated widely on Twitter this weekend, shared by Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau and activists Linda Sarsour and Shaun King, among others, Politico.

— The Washington Times (@WashTimes) May 28, 2018

The President also tweeted about this.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 29, 2018

The photos are, in fact, from 2014, meaning that children were held in this condition during the Obama Administration. They were taken by the Associated Press and published by The Arizona Republic, again, per Politico.

With these answers in mind, what is our responsibility to undocumented children? Is the federal government equipped to handle the new “zero tolerance” policy?

GUESTS

Maria Sacchetti, Reporter covering immigration, The Washington Post; @mariasacchetti

For more, visit https://the1a.org.

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